interventions 13, 1 (2011)


Between Subalternity and Indigeneity, ed. Bird and Rothberg

Jodi A. Byrd; Michael Rothberg, ‘BETWEEN SUBALTERNITY AND INDIGENEITY: Critical Categories for Postcolonial Studies’.

This introductory essay addresses the conditions for possible exchange between subaltern studies and indigenous and American Indian studies. It highlights the special significance of Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ as an inaugurating moment of postcolonial studies in the US with important implications for those working in indigenous studies. Scholars in postcolonial and indigenous/American Indian studies share an interest in challenging the logics of colonialism and deploying incommensurability as a critical tool. However, the essay also points to tensions between postcolonial and indigenous studies that derive from indigenous people’s sense of living under ongoing colonial projects – and not just colonial legacies – and from postcolonial studies’ over-reliance on models of colonialism in South Asia and Africa that do not necessarily speak to the settler colonies of the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. Besides tracing the convergences and tensions that mark the relation between indigenous and postcolonial critical tendencies, this essay introduces the contributions to this special issue and seeks to prompt further dialogue that continues the project of interrogating subalternity.

Elizabeth A. Povinelli, ‘THE GOVERNANCE OF THE PRIOR’.

This essay asks how critical indigenous theory might intervene in the field of critical theory. What originates here that does not in other disciplinary phrasings and phases and cannot without doing some violence to the tasks indigenous critical theory sets for itself? It begins to answer this question by introducing a form of liberal governance – the governance of the prior – that critical indigenous theory illuminates. And it argues that rather than referencing a specific social content or context, social identity or movement, critical indigenous theory disrupts a network of presuppositions underpinning political theory, social theory and humanist ethics (obligation) which are themselves built upon this form of liberal governance.

Jodi A. Byrd, ‘BEEN TO THE NATION, LORD, BUT I COULDN’T STAY THERE: American Indian Sovereignty, Cherokee Freedmen and the Incommensurability of the Internal’.

This essay takes as its case study the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma’s 2007 vote to disenfranchise approximately 2,800 Cherokee Freedmen (African-Cherokee descendents of slaves once held by members of the Cherokee Nation) in violation of the treaty the Cherokee Nation signed with the United States in 1866 to end the Civil War. Arguing that indigenous sovereignty and political status is incommensurable with the ‘internal’ to the United States, the essay provides a genealogy of ‘internal colonialism’ in order to track how it has emerged as descriptor within postcolonial theory for indigenous peoples’ relations with the United States. In order to place indigenous critical theory into conversation with subaltern studies, the essay argues that disaggregating processes of racialization from colonization makes the ongoing settler colonization of indigenous nations visible in conversation with subaltern studies at the same time that it reveals the persistent racisms that have continued to inflect Cherokee nationalism.

Gaurav Desai, ‘BETWEEN INDIGENEITY AND DIASPORA: Questions from a Scholar Tourist’.

This essay proposes the category of subalternity as a tool to adjudicate between the often conflicting claims of diaspora and indigeneity. Written in the context of two itineraries on the part of the author – one a combined lecture/tourist trip to Ecuador and the second a talk presented at a symposium on indigeneity and postcoloniality in Urbana-Champaign – the essay begins by tracking the various knowledge claims that arise out of the experience of travel. It goes on to record a travel narrative to an indigenous community in Ecuador in which many of the concerns of representation, language and political recognition that colonized communities face are raised. The essay then moves on to a discussion of the risks of unilaterally privileging either the claims of indigeneity or the claims of diaspora.

María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, ‘NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEXICANS: The Collision of Empires on the Texas Frontier’

This essay pairs documents dating from 1758 on the settlement of central Texas with the 2007 film No Country for Old Men to offer a comparative analysis of the competing racial geographies that emerged from Spanish and Anglo-American colonialism in the Southwest. These modes of European empire each produced distinctive racial geographies with lasting consequences for contemporary indigenous peoples. Settlers under the Spanish Crown represented the Texas territory as teeming with indigenous peoples, including the Apache and Comanche nations. Spanish coloniality, she suggests, was predicated upon indigenous presence. Without Indians, there could be no settlement. Meanwhile, Anglo-American colonization required not only the dispossession of indigenous peoples (and mestizo Mexicans) for the expansion of the US, but also the banishment of the figure of the Indian from the national imagination. Consequently, the Cohen brothers’ film is able to represent the very same Texas territory as barren and completely devoid of any Native Americans 250 years after the Spanish settlers penned their documents. It is suggested that the displacement of the Indian from the American landscape comes at great psychic cost. Thus, even a seemingly anti-war and anti-imperialist film like No Country operates under the shadow of this US colonial violence, registering the trace of the Indian as terrorist. The essay offers a revision of postcolonial methodology, and particularly of subaltern studies, to allow for the analysis of the complex relationship evident in the Spanish colonial archive between white settler and indigenous populations. Rather than a perpetual antagonism, it finds an attenuated set of relations between Spanish settlers and indigenous inhabitants of Texas, offering a broader interpretative framework for indigenous agency.


Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ emerged in and helped shape a specific moment in the development of literary theory in the US, and it continues to challenge Native American studies in significant ways. Spivak captures in Gramscian terms the dilemma that scholars and intellectuals from the colonized world face in positing their work as engaging in meaningful change of the conditions of colonization. Her reflexive approach becomes most meaningful for Native studies when the indigenous world is understood as featuring two forms of subalternity, one focused on economic depravation, the other more focused on the maintenance of the social and cultural forms of traditional cultural practitioners. The conclusion focuses on one place where intellectuals meet up with both these forms of subalternity, an Osage dance society. This is an example of one setting where subalterns and intellectuals can, in fact, meet each other and communicate.

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