mark rifkin’s review essay on the transatlantic indian problem in literature


Mark Rifkin, ‘The Transatlantic Indian Problem’, American Literary History (2012), 1-19.

bit in lieu of abstract:

All three of these studies valuably indicate the significance of Indianness beyond a semi-ethnographic, and potentially fetishizing and exoticizing, concern with the lifeways of Indigenous peoples. Yet they also tend to treat the figure of the Indian as a mobile trope which can be read either as signifying principally in the somewhat insulated space of European reception or as a repeating (and relatively unchanging) marker of the limits of colonial modernity. In this way, their version of the transnational turn largely brackets consideration of the ways the production and dissemination of Indianness interfaces with particular strategies of settler governance. Attending to work within Indigenous studies that addresses the connection between figurations of Indianness/Aboriginality and the administrative management, dislocation, and erasure of Indigenous peoples might help reconnect the generic image to the sociopolitical processes affecting those so represented. Moreover, the transnational here appears as movement between fairly discrete sites, and the political, economic, and cultural affiliations among them seem to bear little on how Indianness is interpreted. There is a growing body of work focusing on the creation of transnational networks among peoples whose lands are claimed by different settler states and the use of international fora and discourses to do so.16 And scholarship increasingly has turned to the ways associa- tions among Indigenous peoples within the boundaries of the same settler state can be understood as transnational, highlighting their existence as distinct polities and the specificity of their ways of enacting diplomatic and other relations not routed through the political imaginary of the nation that presents them as part of its “domestic” space. Still, largely unaddressed are the ongoing forms of connection between imperial centers and spaces of settlement and among settler states themselves once independent. What role do figures of Indianness play in forging, mediating, regulating, and disavowing networks of settlement across geopolitically differentiated spaces? How does the production of the Indian as a problem—an obstruction, mystery, remnant—participate not only in local settler projects and programs but in broader formations of interdependence, investment, and influence? Although these three studies do not pursue such questions, they do implicitly raise them, indirectly gesturing toward the value of a different sort of transnational turn within Indigenous Studies.

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