Breaking out of the Temporal Prison: On Native Cultural Production in the Era of Late Colonialism

Another clip from my dissertation. I have only one more such post as this planned. When my dissertation, which has already been completed and submitted, is ready for final drafting and becomes publicly available, I will likely host the entirety of it as a single document on this blog.

As I have described elsewhere, while I consider here to be home, it was not where I was raised.  Though I spent much time in the Great Lakes region in my younger days, it was always alongside my mother’s immediate and extended family.  While the reservation of our nation in northern Wisconsin was in many ways a shelter from the outside world of the white/settler/master, setting aside its role in colonial governmentality as a site of biopolitical and affective immiseration for Indians, even the times spent in the city of Milwaukee were always spent in the company of other Indians.  Thus, it was not truly until I moved to Kitchener-Waterloo as a young adult, and spent many formative years within this locale, and the attendant efforts I made to integrate myself within the mixed urban Indigenous population that is ordinarily resident here alongside daily exposure to quotidian canadian life (that is, the quotidian daily life of exposure to the canadian settler populace) that I truly came to experience the ontological and social deadness and displacement of Indianness.

This is something that I believe is related to, but distinct from, the quotidian experience of anti-Native racism that is all too common an experience for Indigenous peoples within this country, whether or not they meet some supposed visual qualification schema for recognition of status as an Indian, Métis or Inuit (my critique of which was the subject of Chapter 3). This is also ineluctably related, but not wholly reducible to I believe, to the structural machinery of genocide that biopolitically annihilates Native peoples at the level of the cognition, and the technologies of governance deployed by the modernist settler-colonial state apparatus through which these logics function.  Rather, I believe this outsideness, or exteriority, or to use Juárez’s terminology in his critique of Hegel, “off-the-map-ness,” of Indianness or Indigeneity functions within an affective register that flows in part from the structuring mechanisms of elimination and which precondition the possibility of white/setter/master antipathy towards Native people in the realm of everyday life in the sense that Henri Lefebvre described as that zone of intersection and interrelation between “illusion and truth, power and helplessness; the intersection of the sector man controls and the sector he does not control” (1991: 21).

Most recently, in my first experiences teaching, in a strictly academic sense that is, which came in the form of a course entitled Contemporary Issues in Indigenous Communities in Canada within a nascent Indigenous Studies programme at the University of Waterloo, the expression of this off-the-map-ness washed itself over me much more than I would have anticipated. It did not come from me, however, nor did it come from the text which I had chosen to assign to the class.  Rather, it was expressed by my students.  In this experience there are two loci worth mentioning, the first being the written and spoken appreciation from students I received at the end of the term in April 2019, while the second came largely in the form of one the class requirements I had deployed for the course, an online discussion component.

In terms of the first, as the term reached its endpoint, especially during the last two lectures in the first week of April, a number of students either approached me in person or sent me emails to thank for me the course, for the materials I had assigned, for the way I had taught and for what they had gained and grown from over the length of the course. This, of course, was quite affirmative for me.  I had never taught before in a classroom setting where I had to create the syllabus, choose, and assign the text, formulate the exams and assignments etc.  However, it piqued my interest when a number of my students during this had expressed to me just how much they did not know about Indigenous peoples within the northern bloc.  In particular what resonated with them was something we had discussed earlier in the course, which was the idea that for many members of the setter population Indigenous people are lost in time, or lost out of time, in the sense that the ongoing existence of Indigenous people is often forgotten, even as Indigenous peoples have always resisted settler colonialism, even militantly so as has been the case in this country since 1995 and the Oka Crisis. Many of these students related to me how all prior knowledge they had of Native peoples, often only from high school, but also often from university courses, was of a people who were or had been.  Native people had been here before settlers.  Natives were subjected to cruel and unusual hardships; that Natives were dispossessed of their territories and sovereignties (though often, they related to me, these issues were discussed much more euphemistically, as is quite often the case within settler-colonial classrooms).  But, because of the coding and overcoding of the settler imagination from the ideological apparatus of the school, for many of my students it had never crossed their minds that Native people are.  This was especially so for my students, who were the majority, who were from geographic regions of the country and province where everyday proximity to Native peoples was not a regular part of their lives.  This was the case doubly so for my students who, like myself, are internationals and expats, and so did not even have the bare minimum of knowledge about Native peoples that could be gleaned from standard settler schooling.

This was also often reflected in the other portion of the class that I mentioned: online discussion components.  I had assigned my students a portion of their overall grade based on posting a number of reflection pieces to a series of online discussion boards I had created for the class.  They were to choose ten of the twelve weeks and their attendant readings and write a reflection or discussion of the materials.  When I came to reviewing them, which also gave me a much wider “data” set to reflect upon versus the verbal and emailed discussions with students about their feelings about the course, I read that many more of students had been through a social process of enculturation that left Native peoples by the wayside in the past, never in the present, and never with a future. For myself, as an Indigenous person, as an international, and as a scholar, this shocked me perhaps more than it should have, especially, as I thought, in the wake of what I had taken to be a relatively socially and culturally wide recognition of the facts of the residential schools, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and (relatively) recent canadian government apologies for the horrors of those institutions inflicted upon Native children and youth, and of their lasting effects. Our own institution, the University of Waterloo, is publicly and openly engaging a process of so-called Indigenization.  While I am somewhat cynical about the process and its intentions and pretensions, it is something that I felt was quite visible to the student body.  Likewise, the physical location of the classroom was not but a 30-second walk down a hallway from the Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre.

For whom could such an Indigenization process and nearby and regularly staffed Indigenous Centre be for if not for living and present Indigenous peoples?  Indianness and Natives, in this regard, would appear to be a highly pregnant absent presence within the psychic and physical lives of the average settler citizen of the northern bloc.  Though perhaps, and I readily accept this possibility, I assume too much of the settler population of this country, and of the southern region of the province in particular.

The point however is that these twinned experiences in my first teaching experience demonstrate to me, in this one microcosm of a larger settler-colonial whole, that we, as living Indians, Métis and Inuit peoples, exist (and persist) within the confines of a settler state and surrounded by a settler population for whom everyday discourse in civil and popular society and culture codes and overcodes our bodies, lives, communities and nations as past, as were, as had been, much as in Byrd’s close reading of de Tocqueville on the removal of the Choctaw (2011: 37). Even though Byrd’s reading was of events that happened in a previous time, and which took place on the other side of the dividing line between the northern bloc’s two constituent elements, the discursive and affective conditions of settler colonialism are quite the same: Native peoples are firmly located, and locked, within the temporal past, rendering impossible presence within the present. As before, the Indian is a ghost that haunts the margins of a settler-colonial state and society that, try as it must, attempts to forget and not notice.

Within the hypersurface of the settler-colonial present Natives are often thus, in my lived experience, treated as a kind of time traveller when we are encountered in the day-to-day lives of the white/settler/master.  We are not supposed to be present in the present, we are thus beings who do not belong, and when we are found out, our presence in the now uncovered, the white/settler/master’s conception of what is, and of their world, is disrupted and destabilized.  How did these Indians get here?  I did not even think that those people existed anymore?  These are, I imagine, the thoughts that must begin to run through the minds of many settlers within the moment of this kind of encounter.  I am of course not meaning to imply that members of the settler population believe that Indians literally stepped out of some kind of H. G. Wells-Esque time machine or temporal vortex.  However, given the philosophical, juridical, and political a priori banishment of the Native out of the settler-colonial time stream, a metaphorical time machine is often sought as the raison dêtre for Native presence within the now.

This results in what I think of as a kind of temporal dysphoria.  The discourse of modernity/coloniality is that we no longer exist, or that we should not exist, and where we continue to be, it is as, to resurrect a myth of anthropology’s ripe past, the remnants of a dying people, soon to meet our end in the sands of time and be blown away as mere dust on the wind. For us, as Native people, this means that we must always be navigating this when outside of our own sociality and communal spaces.  An effect of this is that we, in our quotidian struggles to force our way onto the stage of the present and proclaim our present existence, is a submission, intentional or unintentional, to what Chelsea Vowel refers to as a kind of “allowable Indigeneity,” by which she means that kinds of performative acts and utterances of Indigeneity that have been made acceptable within modernist and liberal canadian multiculturalism (2016). One can think of acts of beading or “traditional” drumming and singing, the wearing of moccasins or mukluks, sage smudging, or the mass act of the pow wow.

Indeed, to borrow from Wilderson, these acts of performativity generally, in my experience, do not often engender “a renewed commitment to practice” (2009: 119), even if they perhaps perform a commitment to renewal.  This is because these practices become lost against an intersection of grammar (articulation) and ghosts (memory) coded and overcoded by “the syntax and morphology of structural violence” (119), within the sea of which they are often just acts reaching for a Vizenorian vision of survivance.  As such, these performative acts of a kind of survivalist, rather than revivalist, Indigeneity are rendered sterile and nontransgressive within the worlding of the white/settler/master as the apex of Man[1] through Juárez’s grammar of civilization (2014).  This ultimately deracinating aspect of the grammar of civilization is one that Juárez makes clear, noting:

I am inclined to understand this specific process as a “mining of our spirit” that serves to hollow out the integrity of traditions and lifeways to the point at which they become unable to be claimed as indigenous. Examples in this are most explicitly seen in the mass commodification of dream catchers, headdresses, sage burning as an act of cleansing, and the appropriation of Native American artwork by the fashion industry (2014).

Further, for Juárez, this immediately ties back into what I have referred to in this and the previous chapter as the Native as a Being-out-of-Time. He says:

This application of civilization is most important in the understanding that proclamations of ownership are firstly met with surprise that Indians even exist and are secondly pushed aside as so old that there is no way any indigenous group can claim it (2014).

Additionally, I share the worry expressed by Juárez when he discusses the ultimate impact that this “mining of the spirit” has for us as Indigenous peoples, right down to the core of our very identities, on which he states:

there is no longer indigenous culture that can be used as a safe haven away from the ravishes of capitalism, but must rather be understood in the context of a commodification of cultural accouchements so extreme that “Native American culture” becomes “tribal style.” This “mining” serves not only to sever Indigenous Peoples from any spiritual connection to any tradition or lifeway available to them, but works in tangent with other facets of civilization in which the lifeway and the tradition of the Native no longer belongs to them because they are no longer Native, but have been emptied into a blank referent transposed onto the Settler, ensuring that any cultural production of the Indian is always already the Settler’s to use and do with as they please (2014).

Setting aside though the circulation and consumption of this kind of Indigenous survivalist cultural production and performativity within the modern/colonial/capitalist sign and political economies and the white/settler/master, what is most important in my assessment, however, is that these performances are tied to visions of an often imagined past, and one that also is deeply tied to the agglutinating process described by Vizenor of shifting a complex array of highly diverse Indigenous nations into a modernist datum of the Indian (or, the aboriginal, being inclusive of Métis and Inuit kin) (1994). It is a raw simulacrum of Indigeneity precisely because it is a performative and productive re-enactment of a pan-Indian past that never really was.  It is thus a simulation of the past, and of what it means to be Native.  Not all Natives beaded, not all Natives smudged with sage, not all Indians wore moccasins or mukluks, and most certainly not all Indians engaged in the practice of the pow wow, ceremonial or otherwise.

There is certainly nothing wrong with contemporary cultural innovation, I have certainly carried that over from my older anthropological training that taught me no real culture is stagnant.  However, what concerns me is the use of a simulated and mythological past as a mirror for how which we should exist as Native today, and consequently how we should navigate the relations of power under which we currently live. Thinking of Louis Chude-Sokei’s critical invocation of the use of a mythological Africa in the musical imagery of roots reggae (which was so much the music of my island youth, as it is today), I cannot help but think that these performances and productions of Indigeneity to be the generation of a nostalgia and trauma-born (and, indeed, a trauma-born nostalgia) recursive mythology of Indigeneity, shaped by the settler-colonial politico-cultural affective geography of the northern bloc (2011). It is an idea of Indigeneity which is relentlessly, I might even say militantly, celebrated for its supposed pre-colonial anteriority (2011: 80), but which requires for its grounding a non-historical rigidity; in other words: stagnation.

It is also a specifically aesthetic non-historical stagnation that in many ways is in excess of the Jamesonian-Fisherian conceptualization of pastiche (1991; 2009).  It is, to some degree, certainly a hauntological aesthetic, because it relies on constantly engaging in necromantic and necrophagic revivals of the past, disallowing the possibility of innovation, and of finding new, and more contemporarily genuine, ways of existing as Native for the sake of being Native on its own terms.  However, that image of the past that it draws on, as I said already, is actually a vision of something that never actually was, to begin with; a vision of an imagined pan-Indian prior.  This, in my assessment, shifts the discussion beyond Jamesonian and Fisherian discussions of pastiche and hauntological revivalism—because there is nothing to actually revive when it comes to these kinds of pan-Indianist imaginaries—and into a terrain best discussed in Baudrillardian terms of simulacra.  In particular, thinking of Baudrillard’s successive phase precession of the sign-order, this kind of pan-Indian non-historical performativity of Nativeness appears, at the very least, to be a kind of third-order simulacrum, where the image (sage smudging, beading, pow wows, mukluk making, etc.) appears to be a representation of a profound reality, in this case, the prior of conquest, but which actually masks the truth that it, in fact, does not represent anything real at all (1994: 6).

Further, what engagement in these practices of performative acceptable Indigeneity also mean for us as Native peoples is that our expression of Indianness or of Nativeness is ineluctably tied to the cognition of the settler.  This is at least in part because the terms of this simulated mythology of the Indian past are set through the worlding of the settler.  I do not suggest that this means that every single Native person living today in this country wakes up in the morning and declares to themselves “today I am going to meet the expectations of the settler for what it means for me to be a Native,” but that is what is rendered out of these practical engagements with the modern and liberal world of the white/settler/master. In a sense, it is perhaps a non-political form of what Coulthard so forthrightly criticizes and urges us to turn away from, which is the practice of seeking recognition of ourselves from the white/settler/master (2014).  Following Juárez, it is also within and through this zone of acceptability that we discipline ourselves in the commodification drive of the capitalist world-system.  We sell our beading and moccasins for money.  We dance and sing for money.  And this even more deeply drives us into the dead-end dialectic of recognition with the settler, especially as many Native people have grown openly critical of the tidal wave of fake Native imagery that buries us under the weight of patterns on clothing, of capitalist branding and sign-value, and of curios to be bought and sold at any highway stop that now criss-cross our territories.  To the degree that we do not turn away from these things though, we begin to shift the dramaturgy of kind of pan-Indian, non-historical Nativeness further down the precessional sign-order, from third-order simulacrum to fourth order, where the performance of Indianness not only masks the fact that there is no reality being reflected in its image, but where it reflects only other signs, in this instance the signs of Indianness as rendered within settler coloniality.

Within modernist and colonial liberal capitalism what it is to be Native has been so deracinated by the machinery of elimination and dispossession that it is hard today to even think of these performances as truly Native.  Rather they exist for the consumption of the settler and exist for the settler to do with them as they so please.  They have become part of the liberal colonizing assemblage that is the mosaic of canadian multiculturalism.  These things may be made by Natives, or worn by Natives, or done by Natives, but they belong to Canada, or the United States.  This is the terminal point of Juárez’s grammar of civilization (2014).

What is not allowable, though, are those expressions of Indigeneity that express a living presence of the Native within the current moment, and which evinces any desire for a decolonial face in the future-anterior.  This is the truly weird Native that exists beyond the temporal bounds of the white/settler/master’s world-building project.  Truly living Natives, not the socially and ontologically dead Natives that exist within the multicultural imagination of modernity/coloniality, are the weird monsters waiting to rupture and destabilize this world.  Natives who are Native within their own cognition of themselves, absent the machinery of the settler-colonial state and the settler populace writ large, who do not seek a Lacanian reflection in the mirror of that society do not belong.  They cannot belong, lest they, to paraphrase Joy Harjo (2008), break into this overcoding story by force, warclub in hand, and leave it with the smoke of grief rising, the world of Man dead beside them.  In this sense, a Nativeness for its own sake, a decolonial Nativeness that defies the temporal streaming of the settler, which rejects its displacement from the movement of time itself into the zone of a Being-out-of-Settler-Time, is truly monstrous.

Endnotes

[1] To be clear: this is not moral judgement against any of these things. I enjoy attending pow wows, though recognize they are sometimes problematic in their celebration of the militancy of settler-colonial imperialism through the celebration of Indigenous veterans of those wars (though never, as my sister and I have remarked to each other more than once, the veterans of say the Oka Crisis or Standing Rock, which were just as much states of war). I also own Native jewelry and even possess my own hand- and self-made pair of moccasins. Indeed I am strongly supportive of those I know who engage in the painstaking practice of creating such jewelry, with often stunning results, because in this era of the post-Fordist gig economy we all have to make money somehow. This however does not weigh against the fact that those are expressions of Indigenousness that are allowable and acceptable within settler-colonial liberalism.

Bibliography

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

Chude-Sokei, Louis. 2011. “When Echoes Return: Roots, Diaspora and Possible Africas (A Eulogy).” Transition: An International Review (104).

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Harjo, Joy. 2008. “Equinox.” On Winding Through the Milky Way. Digital Download.

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

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Wilderson III, Frank B. 2009. “Grammar & Ghosts: The Performative Limits of African Freedom.” Theatre Study 50 (1): 109-125.

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