Settler Colonialism and the Incommensurable Cartography of the Savage Indian

This piece is a follow up to the previously posted Machinic Worlds, Indian Ghosts and the Existential Suturing of Settler Society, and is also an excerpt from my current dissertation work. I highly suggest that that piece be read before reading this one as they are part of a larger single discursive arch. It continues my meanderings towards making a point about Native damage narratives and their consumption within the the imaginarium of late capitalist/colonialist storytelling.

But what does our fire-side tale about the chronic requirement of the settler colonial order of things to silence Native ghosts, both living and dead, in order to always be able to (re-)instantiate its own sense of legitimacy have to do with the question of Native abjection and the telling and consumption of our damage narratives? I understand that question, which is why I pose it here in the body of these text. I know what you are probably thinking as you try to decipher this story at arm’s length, because while this may seem like an interesting aside about AAA videogames, and certainly something that is worthy of its own dissertation length examination, it does not seem to have much immediate to do with the questions posed earlier in this chapter. What does any of this have to do with why settler colonial society is always so ready consume our stories of haunting and trauma?

But it does have something to do with this I argue back, very much so. Somewhere in the above discussion of Western tropes and Indian spectres that haunt the margins of the settler colonial and capitalist realist imaginary-of-the-present-and-future are seeds already planted for where the journey down this rabbit hole will eventually take us. And the deeper we fall towards the heart of the issue, the weirder the monsters will become.

At the heart of the ongoing ontological and symbolic requirement of continuous Native death and dispossession, is a fundamental question of the construction of The Indian, Indians, and of Indian sovereignty and how it allows the Native to be both cast out, and to a priori always-already cast out, that is to say: always-already abjected. For the purposes of my argument here I take sites of multiplicity of The Indian, of Indians-as-Persons, and of Indian Sovereignty as indicative of, as well as manifestations of, the same, primordial ontological condition within, against and before the social ontology of settler colonialism. To use the wording of Billy-Ray Belcourt, perhaps then we can think here of Indianness as a kind of ante-ontology, in that “it is prior to and therefor disruptive of ontology” (2016: 24), or as Jodi Byrd’s Indian Errant which foregrounds the formation of all else (2011).

This state of being is one that is always-already cast out, always-already outside of the conception of Man, of Man-as-the-Human, born of coloniality with its taxonomic boundaries delineated by the binary  of white/not white, what Aníbal Quijano called the racism/ethnicism complex (2007), as well as male/not male, cissexual/not cissexual, heterosexual/not heterosexual. Indeed, what Sylvia Wynter referred as the ethnoclass of (bourgeois) Man’s overrepresentation as the Human, central as it is to the reigning modernist épistémè, cannot be separated from co-constituted and co-productive dualism of modernity/coloniality. Wynter’s potent corrective of Foucault’s genealogy of Man displaces and destabilizes the latter’s Eurocentrism by centering the Columbian encounter and processes of elimination, enslavement, conquest and subordination (Wynter 2003; Foucault 1994)

While these binaries no doubt play a significant role in the ordering of the settler colonial world and the Indian’s relationship to it, such as in Mark Rifkin’s asking of the question “when did Indians become straight?” (2011) for us here I want to aim at two additional binary oppositions. Firstly is Man vs the Savage, which might render also as Man vs the Wild, or more simply and more classically recognizable, Man vs Nature. And secondly, and perhaps more abstractly, Being-in-Settler-Time vs Being-Out-of-Settler-Time. I want to posit that these two binary oppositions are not only fundamental to understanding the relationship of the Indian to the world of the Sovereign and the settler (and the sovereign settler), but are themselves deeply interrelated.

Both of these oppositions—Man vs the Savage, and Being-in-Settler-Time vs Being-Out-of-Settler-Time—entail a project of world creation in which the Native is always-already an exteriority vis-à-vis the white/settler/master, its states and civil society. While I believe that Wolfe is correct in his argument that in a political and juridical sense it is the case that in the post-frontier era of total territorial engulfment of the Indian the living Indian has been transferred from a cartography of the outside to one of the inside (2012) I argue that the situation is not reflected in the fundamental social ontology of contemporary settler colonialism.

Here I argue that the always-already casting out of the Native functions along these two different yet related lines of thought: the Native-as-Out-of-Settler-Time and the Native-as-the-Wild. While the question of the Native-as-Out-of-Settler-Time clearly articulates itself around questions of temporality, in particular around what Mark Rifkin refers to as settler time (2017), I also read the Native-as-the-Wild as a form of spatial cartography that functions through and across multiple registers to delimit the boundaries settler habitability.

Both of these are necessary to understand not only the form and content of Native abjection, but also ultimately the question of the how and why of our damage narratives, and thus it is necessary to briefly explore them. What they mean is not that the Native is abjected from, cast out of, the fold of Man and its overrepresentation as Man-as-the-Human—the world of the settler—but rather that the Native was never part of that world to begin with. This also converges with, and draws from, Nicolas Juarez’s ontological investigation of Red Life (2014), and thus also necessarily unsettles assumptions in certain theorizations of Indian positionality which posit a partial commensurability of the relationship between the Indian and Man come settler, such as that articulated within the work of Frank B. Wilderson, III (2010). It is also thus a further sketching out of the Indian positionality as theorized by Byrd (2011) within a triangular social ontology of settler colonialism of Indian-Settler-Arrivant[1].


In his text Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, Wilderson provides us with an ontological taxonomy of life under settler colonialism of Human-Savage-Slave (while Wilderson speaks of ‘the Human,’ I, as above, cleave closer to Wynter’s understanding that this particular ‘Human’ is an overrepresentation of the ethnoclass of (bourgeois) Man). Within his necessarily arboreal theorization the white/settler/master occupies the space of the ‘Human,’ alongside all other non-Indian and non-Black people of colour, while the Black Slave is the abjected non-human. Between these two positions is the Indian Savage, which for Wilderson occupies a liminal position of half-Humanness (2010). The reasoning for the ‘half-Human’ positionality of the Indian Savage for Wilderson is found within his understanding of the grammars of Indian life: genocide and the loss of sovereignty. Within his theorization of the structure of antagonism, the former is unable to be made legible within the rhetorical world of the ‘Human’ come settler, and rather finds articulation with the grammars of Black suffering, accumulation and fungibility. However the latter, the loss of sovereignty, is able to be reincorporated and made legible within the ‘Human’s’ register of structural re-adjustment (2010). Wilderson notes:

On the semantic field on which the new protocols are possible, Indigenism can indeed become partially legible through a programmatics of structural adjustment (as fits our globalized era). In other words, for the Indians’ subject position to be legible, their positive registers of lost or threatened cultural identity must be foregrounded, when in point of fact the antagonistic register of dispossession that Indians “possess” is a position in relation to a socius structured by genocide. … [T]he Indigenous position is one for which genocide is a constitutive element, not merely an historical event, without which Indians would not, paradoxically, “exist” (2010: 9-10).

He continues this line of thinking elsewhere, saying:

[W]hereas the genocidal modality of the “Savage” grammar of suffering articulates itself quite well within the two modalities of the Slave’s grammar of suffering, accumulation and fungibility, Native American film, political texts, and ontological meditations fail to recognize, much less pursue this articulation. The small corpus of socially engaged films directed by Native Americans privilege the ensemble of questions animated by the imaginary of sovereign loss (2010: 28).

As powerful and insightful as Wilderson’s ontological mapping of white/settler/master and Black life may be, there are certain theoretical miscues within his analysis which cause him to mislocate the Indian Savage as liminal to ‘Human’ life, rather than fully outside of it. Indeed, in later work, Wilderson completely abjures this formulation under the influence of Jared Sexton (2016; 2003), and in his later works places the formerly liminal Indian Savage fully inside of the category of the Man qua the Human (2011). Focusing on his earlier and more textually substantial work however, for Juarez, who repositions Wilderson’s grammar of Redness from genocide and sovereignty to clearing and civilization, this is because Wilderson:

[C]ompartmentalizes the Red ontological position of clearing into genocide and (the loss of) sovereignty, ultimately failing to recognize the nature of Red life as the condition of being cleared a priori to existence, what Wilderson articulates as the shift from clearing as a verb to clearing as a noun at the moment of the “discovery” [emphasis mine] (2014).

This point of recognition for Juarez is the entry point of the Native-as-Out-of-Settler-Time. In drawing this development out of the settler order of things, we turn to the Marshall Trilogy[2] of decisions at the u.s. supreme court in the early-to-mid-19th century, seminal decisions in the juridical reckoning of the Indian within the northern bloc. Lumbee critical legal scholar Robert A. Williams, Jr. says of their foundational role in the settler order of things that:

[T]he Marshall Model of Indian Rights plays much the same kind of inaugural and paradoxical organizing role in the Supreme Court’s Indian law as Bhabha’s wondrous “English book” plays in the cultural writings of English colonialism (2005: 50).

In particular these three court decisions have had a profound and lasting implication for any understanding of Indian sovereignty and the loss thereof. In this regard Juarez notes, “The Marshall rulings ontologically determine Redness from the moment the Settler meets the Savage (2014). The temporal dimension of the Marshal rulings is likewise noted by Wolfe, who states:

Native sovereignty existed out of (or at least, prior to) colonial time, which is to say, it did not exist at all—or rather, it only existed in order to be diminished. Paradoxically, therefore, Native sovereignty was a creation of discovery. Propositionally, it was an imperative generated by Marshall’s commitment to diminution, which required an undiminished prior state that could be diminished from (2012: 10-11).

Finally, Mark Rifkin describes the cognition of Indian sovereignty in light of the Marshall Decisions as a “peculiar status.” In particular he says of the place of Indian sovereignty within the juridical worlding of the settler that it is “less as a way of designating a specific set of powers than as a negative presence, as what Native peoples categorically lack” (2017b: 297). The notion of Indian sovereignty is a void, a nullity, a simulacrum par excellence; it does not hide some genuine truth, some deeper reality, that Indians are, or were, in fact sovereign self-subjects and that this status was lost within the cognition of the white/settler/master. As Baudrillard himself notes, in a simulated reference to the new testament, “[t]he simulacrum is never what hides the truth—it is truth that hides the fact that there is none” (1981: 1).

This is, as Juarez articulates, the essence of “being cleared a priori to existence” (2014). On the ontological implications of this, and of the resultant construction of the Indian within the symbolic order of the settler, he notes:

For the concept that the United States had eminent domain over the land to gain coherence it must presume, in the a priori, that the terra nullius of the Americas always was. Here, Native Americans emerge barred from sovereignty at the ontological level, and thus can only be regarded as non-Human occupants. This a priori clearing becomes the necessary grounding for the Marshall ruling to make sense because the clearing of land must be scaled to the level of a hemisphere in order for colonial land-grabbing to even begin to play out within the Americas. … as far as the Settler is concerned, as far as the world is concerned, the Red Indian never had sovereignty, never had any claim to the land at all (2014).

The above discussions of the Marshall Rulings in the United States also reveal an additional problem with Wilderson’s theorization of the Indian as a kind of liminal ‘half-Human’. This is that while he sees the loss of sovereignty for the Indian as a point of articulation with the grammars of suffering of the ‘Human’, what he fundamentally misses is that where the same linguistic taxons may be used to seemingly describe a notion of Indian sovereignty that is superficially similar to the sovereignty of the white/settler/master, it is in fact something of a categorically, and fundamentally different, and inferior, kind. While not in my reading a direct critique of Wilderson, Wolfe makes this distinction clear, noting:

In keeping with the doctrine of discovery, the Marshall judgments presuppose, and can only consistently be read as presupposing, a fundamental asymmetry between Indians’ right of occupancy and the property rights that white settlers could obtain once Native title had been extinguished. Under certain conditions, Natives’ immemorial occupation of their land entitled them to a right of soil or usufruct, which was understood as hunting and gathering rather than as agriculture. This right was inalienable. It could not be sold to private individual or corporation but, under the principle of pre-emption, could only be surrendered to the crown. Once Native title had been surrendered to the crown and extinguished, however, the crown could transfer to settlers an entitlement (fee simple) that was greater than the right of occupancy that the Natives had surrendered. Thus the process yielded more than land for settlers. It also yielded sovereign subjecthood: they became the sort of people who could own rather than merely occupy. The asymmetry between occupancy and title reflected a thoroughgoing discrepancy whereby Indian and white were categories of a different order (2012: 10).

Thus the trap for which Wilderson falls in his discussion of (the loss of) Indian sovereignty as one of the two modalities of Red suffering, and as a point of articulation with the alienation and exploitation of the white/settler/master, is one of language. As he claims in Red, White & Black:

At every sale—the soul, the body, the group, the land, and the universe—they [the settler and the Indian] can both practice cartography, and although at every scale their maps are radically incompatible, their respective “mapness” is never in question. This capacity for cartographic coherence is the thing itself, that which secures subjectivity for both the Settler and the ‘Savage’ and articulates them to one another in a network of connections, transfers and displacements’ (2010: 181).

As he continues this theoretical errant, Wilderson’s predicament is made clearer in his more recent essay “Afro-Pessimism and the End of Redemption,” in which he creates a juxtaposition between Simon Ortiz’s poem “Sand Creek” (2000) alongside his own, “Law Abiding” (2013). Through his reading of Ortiz’s poetic work he claims:

[T]he relational status of both the Indian victims and the White oppressors is established—a reciprocal dynamic is acknowledged (between degraded humanity, Indians, and exalted humanity, White settlers).

This reciprocal dynamic is based on the fact that even though one group is massacring the other, both exist within the same paradigm of recognition and incorporation. Their relation is based on a mutual recognition of sovereignty. At every scale of abstraction, body, family, community, cosmology, physical terrain, Native American sovereignty is recognized and incorporated into the consciousness of both Indians and settlers who destroyed them. The poem’s coherence is sustained by structural capacity for reciprocity between the genociders and the genocided (2016).

Speculatively: Wilderson’s trap of language here and elsewhere is perhaps as a result of the insufficiencies in, and inherent ideological and affective functionings of, settler juridical and philosophical linguistic taxonomics[3]. In essence he mistakes the outward linguistic conceptual coverings of these two concepts of supposed sovereignty for their actual ontological content; two things which in fact could not be more distinct—thus allowing for his argument that Indians and the white/settler/master share a mutual congnition of the sovereignty of the other, united in a joint paradigm of “recognition and incorporation.” As Wolfe notes, “The same words meant different things when applied to either” (2012: 10). We can follow the old structural linguistics of Saussure through Baudrillard and Derrida that any given word within an assemblage of language gains its meaningful content through relationship to other words and other concepts; through what it is not. Indian sovereignty is not, and never has been the same thing as the sovereignty of the white/settler/master. This is born out explicitly within the juridical judgements of the Marshall Trilogy and the legal rendition of prior Indian possession as mere usufruct, rather than the fulsomeness of free-holding private property—true sovereignty—something which, via a technology of settler governance that appears more as a form of the alchemy, it could be transformed into and granted forthwith to genuine Human (ethnoclass (bourgeois) Man) subjects through of the sovereign power of the Crown or the Republic.

Wilderson is hardly alone in this movement however, which seeks, as Wolfe notes, “to minimize Indian difference and assimilate it to Whiteness” (2016: 8), or more specifically, to assimilate it to Man in its overrepresentation as the Human, and thus make it inimical to all other forms of life and decolonial, abolitionist and liberation struggles. For Wilderson’s close fellow traveler Jared Sexton this is most explicit (2016), as it is in the work of Migration and Transnationalism scholar Nandita Sharma (2015; 2010). Thus for them, as Melanie K. Yazzie and Nick Estes describe, moves towards a critique of settler colonialism as a distinct modality of domination and towards a decolonial Indianness are, “in their recent assaults on Native sovereignty and nationhood, racist to the point of treachery against all oppressed people” (2016: 20).

What is certainly the case here is that, as critical as their thought may be with regards to the struggles of racialized and colonized peoples, all three of these theorists, within the bodies of their work, effectively re-inscribe and recapitulate a settler colonial order of things. As Wolfe puts it, speaking specifically of Sharma, but easily applicable to all, colonial resonances pervade their work (2013: 266).

Quite on the contrary to this kind of world building, counterpoised as they are to white supremacy, rather than form of a point of legibility and articulation between the Human and the Savage, as Wilderson argues (2010), Indian sovereignty and the sovereignty of the white/settler/master ultimately occupy fundamentally different and incommensurable registers, on planes of linguistics, the political and the ontological. This in and of itself upsets much of Wilderson’s theorization that sovereignty and of the loss of it places the Indian the liminal state of ‘half-Humanness’—or his later moves to simply fully assimilate the Indian into the ‘Human’—without necessary recourse to Juarez’s shift of the grammars of Indian suffering from genocide and (the loss of) sovereignty to clearing and civilization, though I do prefer his general outline for the depth it pursues. In short, the void and the fulsome are neither coeval nor coterminous, and can never be. And this is the ultimate trap that Wilderson and similar theorists face when they are confronted by the position of the Indian Savage and mistake linguistic cover for ontological and political content. As Juarez eloquently, if painfully, states:

The pain and anger over a loss without name is the formation of the social group, it transforms all narratives into narratives of surviving, every act of “culture” by Native Americans becomes a survival strategy in which the dualism between the overwhelming violence of being a Being of nothingness and the deathly comfort of alcoholism and drug use is put off. Wilderson’s concern with the irreconcilable “worlds” of the Settler and the Savage is far too reductionist in the intricacy of the violence inflicted against Red bodies. It is not that there is a Savage world that stands in irreconcilable opposition to the world of the Settler, but rather that Red life (as far as it can be called life) is a survival strategy that no longer possesses the potential for world creation. …

He ignores that the violence Red bodies face extends far beyond the reservation into time and space because it is a violence that silenced languages, burned books, obliterated people, erased history, and shattered families (2014).

In this project of worlding, of world creation by the white/settler/master as Man as its overrepresentation as the Human, there can be no reckoning, no casting of a decolonial face into the future anterior, where there is present something that we might recognize as a genuine Indian sovereignty so long as the world of the settler persists. Any futurity which preserves settler colonialism with its civil society, governmental, ontological and symbolic orders is one that by its very constitution voids any notion of Indian self-determination, not only from the present, but from the past and the future as well, as anything other than pure simulacra.

Returning to the results of the Marshall Decisions[4], what they mean for any ontology of Indianness are profound. On the question of temporality they must be taken as key to my understanding, because they not only evacuate Indian sovereignty from the spatial coordinates of the northern bloc of settler colonialism, but indeed from all notions of temporal cartography as well. Indian sovereignty is not just a sovereignty that was lost, in that it is no longer part of the present-now, but is in fact a sovereignty that never was. The extent to which we can even begin to discuss Indian sovereignty and the Indian as containing a cogent meaning under the rubrics of settler governmentality, we must first recognize that they have been, and always have been, determined by and through the prerogative of the settler. There is no possibility of structural re-adjustment; only a relationship of aporia and antagonism.

This brings into sharp relief Byrd’s two-headed questioning of “do Indians live the ordinary life in the contemporary now?” and “are Indians part of the present tense?” (2011: 37). In short, for me, the answer is a resounding no. For Byrd herself, in her reading of Alexis de Tocqueville and the removal of the Choctaw from their traditional homelands in the southeastern united states, she notes that “[e]ven in the present of their removal, the Choctaws are always already past perfect: they had left, they had stepped, they had been promised” (2011: 37). Beyond questions of pure legality, as in the questions of sovereignty in the Marshall Trilogy, these issues of temporal abjection for the Native are significant. Mark Rifkin in his work Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination asks “[w]hat does it mean to be recognized as existing in time?” before going on to note that:

The representation of Native peoples as either having disappeared or being remnants on the verge of vanishing constitutes one of the principal means of effacing Indigenous sovereignties. Such a portrayal of Indigenous temporal stasis or absence erases extant forms of occupancy, governance, and opposition to settler encroachments. Moreover, it generates a prism through which any evidence of such survival will be interpreted as either vestigial (and thus on the way to imminent extinction) or hopelessly contaminated (as having lost—or quickly losing—the qualities understood as defining something, someone, or some space as properly “Indian” in the first place) (2017a: 5).

In the worlding of the white/settler/master, the Indian is always, and has always been, “was” and “were,” never “is” and “are.” Indeed if we take this line of logic through its terminal point, not only is the Indian was/were and not is/are, the Indian can indeed never truly be, so long the world of the settler continues to be. This precisely why Byrd, building upon Judith Butler’s articulation of when life is grievable (2016), asks whether the Indian is able to cast a life into the tense of the future anterior “in which Indians will have been decolonized” (2011: 38). The Indian is a being out of time if ever there was one.

The Wild Indian and the Indian Wild

Yet this temporal cartographic mapping of a world in which the Indian not only does not belong, but which in fact can never belong, is just one aspect of this issue. The other part is the Native-as-the-Wild, what Williams, Jr. refers to as an “organizing iconography” (2005: 39) of the settler order of things, or what Belcourt suggests is the way that “indigeneity circulates as a feral signifier in colonial economies of meaning-making” (2016: 23). But what does it mean to be-wild or to be-of-the-wild? And what are its implications in thinking the ontological mapping of the Indian on our way to deepening our discussions of damage narratives and their consumption within the society of the settler?

An essential starting here is by way of locating this question as emerging from the old trope of the white/settler/master which sees the Indian as existing within a kind of primordial unity with nature, or the wild. For those of us raised as part of, or engulfed within, a western cultural paradigm, our minds, or at least my mind, is immediately here drawn to the old literary trope of the noble savage, which in its more positive (“positive” being used here extremely loosely) register represents some kind of primeval, wild outsider, unmoored, or uncorrupted, by civilization, one who has not yet left the proximity of the state of nature, and embodying some kind of innate goodness or nobility which has been lost on civilized “Man” within the current modernist episteme.

Minus the moralizing or ethnological baggage of that particular literary trope, this is the literal meaning of the concept of the Savage. As Belcourt traces, “[t]he word savage comes from the Latin salvaticus, an alteration of silvaticus, meaning ‘wild,’ literally ‘of the woods.’ Of persons, it means ‘reckless, ungovernable’ (2016: 23). Speaking specifically to the taxonomic and map-making projects of settler colonialism, he continues, saying that:

In the space-time of settler states, savagery temporarily stands in for those subjectivities tethered to a supposedly waning form of indigeneity, one that came from the woods, and, because of this, had to be jettisoned from or assimilated into the national body (23).

Going further, he suggests that “savagery always-already references an otherworld of sorts: there are forms of life abandoned outside modernity’s episteme whose expressivities surge with affects anomalous within the topography of settler colonialism” (24). Speaking of the Wild and Wildness, which here based on etymological linkages I am treating as synonymous with the Savage, Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o argue:

That first encounters with wildness are intimate and bewilder all sovereign expections of autonomous selfhood. To be wild in this sense is to be beside oneself, to be internally incoherent, to be driven by forces seen and unseen, to hear in voices and speak in tongues. … But even as wildness is internal in a psychic sense, we also sense it as an extramhuman, suprahuman force. … Wildness is where the environment speaks back, where communication bows to intensity, where worlds collide, cultures clash, and things fall apart (2018: 454).

This iconography within which the Indian is coded and overcoded as the savage Indian has been a structuring component of the u.s. settler colonial project since its earliest days. Reading through Byrd, María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo speaks of the “reiterative signification” of Indianness (or perhaps more correctly, Indiannesses) as “ethnographic savagery” and “pathological sovereignty” (2016: 35).

In what we might consider—if we are to again be perhaps overly generous—its more banal or passive manifestations this unity of the Indian with the wild is also seen in the disappearing of prior Native stewardship of land and territory into the background noise of the natural landscape upon which the white/settler/master has set about the construction of his society. That is, in many ways it is outside of the conceptual apparatus of the settler to recognize that the Native has manipulated and altered the physical geography of space prior to the interventions and disruptions of European invasion and settlement. Speaking of the European colonization of Australia Patrick Wolfe describes how:

Invading colonisers regularly marvelled at the local environment’s park like aspect, counting themselves multiply blessed that ‘nature’ (including divine providence) should have come to furnish them with ready-made grazing runs. In fact, the Australian landscape’s benign aspect was the cumulative consequence of millennia of Indigenous management, in particular the use of fire to reduce undergrowth and to contain spontaneous conflagrations within local limits (2016: 22).

For Wolfe, “[i]n replacing Indigenous agency with that of the cosmos, the concept of nature enabled improvements effected by Natives to figure as serendipity. This is an enduring settler theme [emphasis mine] (23). Here the Native becomes nothing more than a literal force of nature, to the extent that their contribution is recognized at all. This enduring repose of the settler is also hardly located to the context of the Australian settler colonial project. Reading Fredrick Jackson Turner’s turn of the twentieth century historiography of the u.s. frontier, Saldaña-Portillo notes:

Certainly, indigenous peoples appear in Turner’s historiography only to eventually cede ground and vanish from the landscape in the face of white settlement’s superior order. And yet even in this quintessential tale of American conquest and character, indigenous peoples do much more than simply disappear. Turner locates Indians in landscape so that “Americans” may acquire their proper ‘Americanness’ (2016: 9-10).

The disappearing Native; disappearing into the ground upon which we walk, is thus not only a basic ontological foundation for the project of settler colonialism, but also a geographic and physiographic one, one which the settler, in his status as the representative of truly civilized Man, is able to reap the rewards, declaring the rest to the work of god or of the cosmos.

I say that this is outside of the conceptual apparatus of the settler the entire construction of the settler colonial project must be rooted in a conception of terra nullius: empty land belonging to no-one. Only properly civilized Man is able to engineer the terrain, to bend “nature” to his will. The savage, by dint of never having shaped the land through application of his labour is nothing more than a non-human inhabitant of the geography, thus unable to claim property rights of possession on anything of the same order as the settler-qua-civilized Man. As Aileen Moreton-Robinson notes of terra nullius, it “gave rise to white sovereignty” and “national identity,” without which “the white nation cannot exist” (2015: 30). Elsewhere this continues this thread, saying “ontologically white possession requires that Indigenous people are not perceived as being out of a state of nature” (2015: 121).

Thus, the material fact of this presupposition of the settler worlding’s fundamental untruth—for Natives have shaped the terrain through stewardship of the land, through the building of cities such as Cahokia or the various sites of the so-called “Mound Builders,” through farming, the planting of orchards and maintenance of gardens etc.—has the potential profoundly unsettle a central element of settler legality and regimes of self-justification. The settler simply cannot recognize the prior stewardship of the territory by the Native. The conceptual apparatus that allows for this worlding flows through Euro-Western theology to modern juridical and ideological deployments of the concept. While the average, individual settler may not be that person which constructed this worldview, they are fully ensconced within it as a conceptual apparatus. Thus, what labour the Native did apply to the land prior to invasion is evacuated and agency placed with god or nature.

At a fundamental level, Wildness and the Native-as-the-Wild is necessary for the construction and reinforcement of the civilized world of the white/settler/master through the presentation of the negative image of what it is not. The paradigmatic lack of civilization necessarily defines the contours of what is itself civilized. This in part why Juarez in his constructive shifting of the categories of Wilderson’s social ontology places civilization and the civilizing mission alongside clearing as the dual modality of violence against Red bodies. In his book Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing, Michael Taussig says of this:

Wildness is incessantly recruited by the needs of order (and indeed this is one of anthropology’s most enduring tasks and contributions to social order). But the fact remains that in trying to tame wildness this way, so that it can serve order as a counterimage, wildness must perforce retain its difference (1987: 220).

This echoes with Juarez’s claim “that the modality of civilization gives coherence to the Settler world by animating the Settler’s ability to create civil society outside of empty space” (2014). At the same time however, the encounter with wildness and the wild Indian disrupts the civilized subject’s symbolic order, because while it functions through a negative dialectic of image-counterimage, the necessity of its difference means that it can never truly be assimilated and reinscribed. As Taussing notes:

Wildness also raises the specter of the death of the symbolic function itself. It is the spirit of the unknown and the disorderly, loose in the forest, encircling the city and the sown land, disrupting the conventions upon which meaning and the shaping function of images rest. Wildness challenges the unity of the symbol, the transcendent totalization binding the image to that which it represents. Wildness pries open this unity and in its place creates slippage and a grinding articulation between signifier and signified. Wildness makes these connections spaces of darkness and light in which objects stare out in their mottled nakedness while signifiers float by. Wildness is the death space of signification (1987: 2019).

However, as Jack Halberstam notes of the Wild, “failure attends to all attempts to make wildness signify as either the opposite of modernity or simply its underbelly” (2014: 143). This is a point that will be returned to later in the text, though I imagine with a different content and context that is intended here by Halberstam’s musings.

This is why for the wild Indian to enter into the civilized space of the white/settler/master subject, its culture, lifeways and Being, is to likewise enter into a death space. This is also, to return briefly to Wilderson, why the shifting of grammars of Red life as articulated by Juarez away from Wilderson’s liminal taxonomy of genocide and (the loss of) sovereignty into clearing and civilization, also shifts the relationship between the Indian and the white/settler/master fully into the zone of antagonism.

The Dialectical Enmeshment of Temporality and Wildness

To return again to the Marshall Trilogy again, this is why it is necessary to speak of two fundamental pillars in my understanding of the ways in which the Native and Native sovereignty are cast out from the world of the settler: the Native-as-Out-of-Settler-Time and the Native-as-the-Wild. Through the operation of what Moreton-Robinson refers to as the “fiction of terra nullius” (2015) these two pillars dialectically reinforce and allow the construction of the other. The Native-as-Savage, who has never departed from the state of nature is thus part of nature, unable to be sovereign. Yet for that concept to function in a coherent manner the Native-as-Savage must also be evacuated from linear, settler conceptions of time so that they not only were in the state of nature at the time of contact, but they remain so and will remain so. This evacuation from temporality then bares from the Indian from ever actually being able to leave the state of nature so long as they remain conceptually and paradigmatically an Indian.

The enmeshment of the Indians Being-out-of-Time and Being-in-the-Wild echoes far beyond the Marshall rulings of the mid-nineteenth century, into the foundational philosophies of Western modernity, tied as it is to coloniality by Quijano in the dual concept of modernity/coloniality (2007). With particular regard to the Hegelian dialectic, formative as it is too much of so-called ‘continental philosophy’ from Marxism, to Lacanian psychoanalytics, to poststructuralism, postmodernism and deconstruction, either by way of incorporation, inversion or critique and rejection, the Indian, simply put, has no place in it.

For the Hegelian dialectic of the unfolding of history via the world geist, it is a process that began in Asia, found is telos in Europe and against which both Africa and Africans serve as a perpetual stasis point against which, as Scott L Pratt explains, the progression of said unfolding of the geist as a “spirit becoming aware of itself by manifesting itself in the real world” (2002: 4) can be judged. As Juarez explains, “Hegel later goes on to understand that, given that the geist met its completion in Europe, Indigenous Americans are not only not a reference point for progress (such as the African) but are completely left out of the dialectic in any way, shape, or form” (2014). He continues, digging deeper:

Hegel’s conception of the “off-the-map-ness” of Native Americans is so far reaching and absolute that when he articulates the condition of possibility to ability to enter into European law and be recognized he makes a noted exception for the Savage in that the Savage is just that: a savage that has not left the immediacy of nature and thus cannot be considered part of society any more than the buffalo and mountains that co-populated the region. This rejection is an absolute rejection in that it is not that the Savage is recognized and then rejected as conscious or seen as lacking self-awareness, but rather the Savage is rejected from the possibility of being judged as either [emphasis mine] (2014).

Within the Hegelian dialectic, and the Lacanian psychoanalytics that draw from it, and which informs much of Wilderson’s theorization of the tripartite social ontology of the Human-Savage-Slave, the ‘Human’ represents life, while the Slave is transmuted into a personification of death. However, the Indian becomes neither of these; ejected from cognition of either a being of life or a beng of death, the Indian is cast fully into Gordon’s zone of non-being, becoming a being of nothingness[5]. Thus here again we see the dialectical unity of the Indian’s being-in-the-wild with its being-out-of-time: the Indian Savage’s not only proximal placement to wildness, but ensconcement within it, a priori precludes it from the unfolding of the historical geist, of the movement of settler time. Savageness is thus a prior preclusion from the possibility of intergration within the semantic and social fold of the white/settler/mater. This is also the point of the transformation of myriad and heterogeneous Native nations into the homogeneous category of biopolitical population governance, the Indian (Vizenor 1994: 167). Only existing within the cognition of the white/settler/master, the process of the generation of Indianness by why of permanent externality to the Hegelian dialectic is one by which “Natives are wretched out of their living cosmos and thrown into the dead world of the Indian Savage” (Juarez 2014).

Beyond Hegelianism and Lacanianism though, the spatiotemporal impact of this a priori clearing of the Indian as a point of nothingness radiates outwards and casts its shadow upon even the ostensibly radical inversion of the dialectic of Hegel in the historical and dialectical materialism of Marx and the many who would later take up in his name in the form of a political and theoretical ism[6]. Indeed, many Indigenous theorists have made the case that there is no place within the historical dialectic of Marxism for the survivance of Indian peoples and nations. As Tinker writes, if:

Marxist thinking and the notion of a historical dialectic were finally proven correct, then American Indian people and all Indigenous peoples would be doomed. Our cultures and value systems, our spirituality, and even our social structures, would give way to an emergent socialist structure that would impose a notion of the good on all people regardless of ethnicity and culture (Tinker, 1992:15-16).

While some Marxists of a Leninist persuasion, with the anti-imperialist impulse towards superficially recognizing an ‘oppressed nation right to self-determination,’ may object to this characterization, a century and a half of Marxist praxis within the confines of the northern bloc of settler colonialism has yet to demonstrate any serious political commitment to the overturning of the status of the Indian and of opposition to political and philosophical regimes of settler colonialism. More recently Byrd has also reflected on this. In noting how the conditions of settler colonialism and the status of the Indian continue to delineate what Jodi Dean and Bruno Bosteels refer to as the communist horizon (2018; 2014) she says:

[E]ven within the fierce urgency of post-Fordist economic production and capitalist consumption, the hoped-for-narratives of liberation depend upon the Americas as an already emptied, infinitely exploitable new territory and new site of a transfigured commons (2015: 123).

Indeed, the dialectics of Marxism, as much as with Hegel, are replete with the kinds of modernist abstract universals and universalizing tendencies that Walter Mignolo warns us are the heart of global designs and are thus inherent part of the worlding of coloniality (2012), unless otherwise subjected to the kind of rigorous decolonizing that most of the Marxist milieu are unable or unwilling to engage in.

Even within the field of Indigenous, Native or First Nations Studies, as it is today constituted in the wake of new formulations and iterations of Indigenous Critical Theory, these considerations, I believe, have been fully appreciated. One can consider for a moment the theorizing of Coulthard in his book Red Skin, White Masks (2014), which, while a key text of the his new movement, as well as for myself politically and theoretically, rests strongly upon Fanon’s critique of the Master-Slave dialectic within Hegel (1952). One might wonder then, and this is well beyond my intention here to truly flesh out, what the impact may be for this kind of theorization if the more fully triangular conception of Hegel of White Life, Black Death and Native Nothingness might mean for a fuller appreciation of Coulthard’s theorization, and of his own critique of the usefulness of Fanon as a mechanistic transplantation onto the Indian condition under regimes of settler colonialism.

So what do we make of this conceptual and ontological baring of the Indian from the spatial and temporal cartography of the settler? And in particular, to repeat from my refrain from earlier in this chapter: what is the connection between this and the production and consumption of Indian damage narratives within the imaginarium of late capitalist/colonialist storytelling. In essence, Native exteriority is the point. What I am proposing is that the construction of an Indian-Outside within the ontological, symbolic and imaginary planes of the settler is essential in understanding the peculiar status of Indian abjection, and the implications that that has for my understanding of damage narratives, including my own, and their ready consumption in kind of capitalist economy of horror.


[1] The theorization of the category of Arrivant for Byrd (2011) is an attempt to sketch out the positionality of those who, while not Indian, are also not setters. The chief characteristic here is that Arrivants did not arrive in the Americas of their own free will, but rather found themselves on these shores by dint of force. It must be said however that the category of Arrivant has the capacity to obviate the specificity of the Black experience of chattel enslavement and the ongoing after-lives of it that continue to mark as inherently criminal, containable and killable-without-justification the descendants of those who survived the Middle Passage and the plantation. At the same time, I am not entirely convinced of Wilderson’s own trifold taxonomy of Human-Savage-Slave (discussed elsewhere here), in part because I do not believe that there is sufficient ground within the imaginary of settler colonial order to fold all non-Black and non-Red people of colour into the category of ‘Human’ alongside the white/settler/master. While I accept these criticisms and thus do not deploy either of these categories throughout this work, it is also not my intention at this present moment to provide an alternative social ontology, though I will note that I believe such a fuller and more accurate taxonomy of life under settler colonialism must perhaps be necessarily quadrilateral rather than triangular.

[2] Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832)

[3] While I will not make any serious gestures here regarding claims as to the intentionality or unintentionality of Wilderson’s taxonomic dichotomy, in the above example it is curious, to put the case somewhat minimally, that Wilderson, in his juxtaposition of the two poems, makes one of them his own. “Law Abiding” was published in 2013, in the edited volume Stand Our Ground: Poems for Trayvon Martin & Marissa Alexander. This is a full 3 years after the publication of Red, Black & White, and also post-dates Wilderson’s Sexton-influenced movement away from treating the Indian Savage as a liminal being of “half-Humanness” towards one fully commensurate with, and incorporated within, the category of the “Human” (as the overrepresentation of Man). It is also a full decade after his dual 2003 publications of “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?” and “The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal”, two texts that brought him to the forefront of the heterogeneous movement within theory and analysis known as Afropessimism. The point here being that one can, I would contend, reasonably presume that Wilderson’s own poetics are reflective of his explicitly stated theoretical and political commitments. Thus, again without staking a claim to intentionality or unintentionality, and while still holding Wilderson to be quite valuable for a number of important insights, there is quite clearly a rhetorical movement in Wilderson’s piece “Afro-Pessimism and the End of Redemption” in comparing his own writing with that of an Indigenous writer in order to state his point about the non-relationality and ultimate incommensurability of the violence faced by Red and Black bodies

[4] While the Marshall Trilogy are part of the u.s. legal canon, their reliance on the Doctrine of Discovery and the prior Royal Proclamation of 1763 is ultimately a republican uptake of a shared lineage of legality with the British Empire. This lineage, as well as the spatial cartography that it is played out upon, is also shared in by Canada. Indeed one can cast the juridical net wider to also include Australia, itself also a settler colony founded by the British Empire. However, it is enough to say for the purposes of my writing here that while Canada is assumed to present its own independent political and state order, separate from the united states, in terms of the juridical treatment of Indians and Indian sovereignty, the difference between the two countries is decidedly more narrow. Indeed this is part of the essential point of collapsing these two nominally separate settler colonies resting upon Turtle Island into the label of the northern bloc of settler colonialism.

[5] There is perhaps something Sartrean that can be said about this, but that is well beyond the scope of what I wish to do here. Though perhaps it can serve as a gesture to some form of later work.

[6] I am not here attempting an in-depth analysis of the Marxist dialectic of history, as that is far beyond my intention in this chapter. However, it is worth gesturing towards the many attempts that have been made to unshackle the dialectics of Marx from its teleological and determinist moorings. Recently trends in this have been elaborated by George Ciccariello-Maher in his work Decolonizing Dialectics (2017), and before him and in a different fashion by the late theorist of racial capitalism Cedric J. Robinson in his An Anthropology of Marxism (2019). Certain antecedents, though not with the same decolonial and anti-racist weight of Ciccariello-Maher and Robinson, perhaps can be read in the later works of Louis Althusser (2006) and Fredric Jameson (2010), and with much more weight of that type within the works of Frantz Fanon (1961; 1952). Thus, the Marxist dialectic that I am addressing here could perhaps be best described at the dialectic of ‘orthodox Marxism’ as much as such a thing can be spoken of, recognizing the maze like divisions that exist within Marxism.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. 2006. Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987. London, UK: Verso.

Belcourt, Billy-Ray. 2016. “A Poltergeist Manifesto.” Feral Feminisms 6: 22-32.

Bosteels, Bruno. 2014. The Actuality of Communism. London, UK: Verso.

Butler, Judith. 2016. Frames of War: Wen is Life Grievable. London, UK: Verso.

Byrd, Jodi. 2015. “Mind the Gap: Indigenous Sovereignty and the Antinomies of Empire.” In The Anomie of the Earth: Philosophy, Politics, and Autonomy in Europe and the Americas, edited by Frederico Luisetti, John Pickles and Wilson Kaiser, 119–136. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

—. 2011. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

Ciccariello-Maher, George. 2017. Decolonizing Dialectics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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

Dean, Jodi. 2018. The Communist Horizon. London, UK: Verso.

Fanon, Frantz. 1961. The Wretched of the Earth. New York, NY: Grove Press.

—.1952. Black Skin, White Masks. New York, NY: Grove Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1994. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences. New York, NY: Vintage.

Jameson, Fredric. 2010. Valences of the Dialectic. London, UK: Verso.

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

Martinot, Steve and Jared Sexton. 2003. “The Avant-Garde of White Supremacy.” Social Identities 9(2): 169–181.

Mignolo, Walter D. 2012. Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. 2015. The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Ortiz, Simon. 2000. Sand Creek. Tuscon, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Quijano, Aníbal. 2007. “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality. Cultural Studies 21(2): 168-178

Rifkin, Mark. 2017a. Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

—. 2017b. “Indigenizing Agamben: Rethinking Sovereignty in Light of the ‘Peculiar’ Status of Native Peoples.” In Sovereign Acts: Contesting Colonialism Across Indigenous Nations & Latinx America, eduted by Frances Negrón-Muntaner, 296-335. Tuscon, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

—. 2011. When Did Indians Become Straight?: Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, Cedric J. 2019. An Anthropology of Marxism. London, UK: Ashgate Publishing.

Saldaña-Portillo, María Josefina. 2016. Indian Given: Racial Geographies across Mexico and the United States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sexton, Jared. 2016. 2016. “The Vel of Slavery: Tracking the Figure of the Unsovereign.” Critical Sociology 42 (4-5): 1–15.

Sharma, Nandita. 2015. “Postcolonial Sovereignty.” In Native Studies Keywords, edited by Stephanie Nohelani Teves et al, 35-37. Tuscon, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Sharma, Nandita & Cynthia Wright. 2008-09. “Decolonizing Resistance, Challenging Colonial States.” Social Justice 35(3): 120-138.

Taussig, Michael. 1987. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Tinker, George E. “Tink.” 1992. “The Full Circle of Liberation.” Sojourners 21(8).

Wilderson, Frank B. III. 2016. “Afro-Pessimism and the End of Redemption.” John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute.

—. 2013. “Law Abiding.” In Stand Our Ground: Poems for Trayvon Martin & Marissa Alexander, edited by Ewuare X. Osayande. Philadelphia: Freedomseed Press.

—. 2010. Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

—. 2003a. “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?” Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture 9(2):225-240.

—. 2003b. “The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal.” Social Justice 30(2):18–27.

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.

Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation – An Argument”. CR: The New Centennial Review 3(3): 257-337.

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

—. 2016b. “Introduction.” In The Settler Complex: Recuperating Binarism in Colonial Studies, edited by Patrick Wolfe, 1-24. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA American Indian Studies Center.

—. 2013. “Recuperating Binarism: A Heretical Introduction.” Settler Colonial Studies 3(3-4): 257-279.

—. 2012. “Against the Intentional Fallacy: Legocentrism and Continuity in the Rhetoric of Indian Dispossession.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 36 (1): 3-45.

Yazzie, Melanie K. & Nick Estes. 2016. “Guest Editors’ Introduction: Essentializing Elizabeth Cook-Lynn.” Wicazo Sa Review 31(1): 9-26.