Refusing settler colonialism: Kennan Ferguson, Refusing Settler Colonialism: Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus, Theory & Event, 18, 4, 2015


Excerpt: Resistance as a political strategy proves unsatisfying, but often seems to be the only trope available to contemporary political theory. Theorists find “resistance” in movements from Occupy to protests against racialized police brutality, and often imply that all political engagement must, at some deep level, be about resisting. But the individual and collective aptitudes for politics are more capacious than that. And so others have begun to examine modes of political behavior which operate along other lines. Paying attention to affect has been one method; focusing on quotidian life, another; so has been interrogating the distinction between the human and the nonhuman; and a fourth could be called investigating practices of intensification. Each of these approaches denies the dualism between resistance and power, finding other channels in which politics takes place.

Audra Simpson, in her analysis of American Indian relations to the settler state, adds another philosophical concept to this list of alternatives to resistance: refusal. Refusal, in her rendition, operates very differently from resistance. As a weapon of the weak, resistance can reinscribe weakness as an identifying formulation of identity. Theorists from Friedrich Nietzsche to William Connolly to Wendy Brown have noted the replication of superiority and inferiority in such a dynamic. Refusal, on the other hand, interrupts the smooth operation of power, denying presumed authority and remaking ignored narratives. Historically, it is empirical; strategically, it is oppositional; psychically, it is enjoyable (106). Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, makes an extended argument for this political approach, both as a way of understanding Native relations with the U.S. and Canadian governments, and as a model for further forms of political action.

Put simply, refusal does not take authority as a given. Where resistance looks for lacuna and interruptions in the constancy of power, refusal denies its very legitimacy. This might emerge from emphasizing alternative forms of legitimacy, for example the legal structures of the Mohawk people, or it may draw on practices which predate and thus do not depend on state formations. Where the modern nation-state insists on its own totalizing reality, those who refuse deny its authority and its domination. Where the state claims a monopoly on violence, those who refuse deny its universality and capacity. Where the state claims to determine what laws, treaties, and norms should be followed and which should be ignored, those who refuse turn to history, international law, and documentation not merely to resist, but to insist on alternative rationalities and legitimacies.

This is not a safe approach, of course. Where resistance incurs compulsion and persuasion, refusal can be met with outrage and incomprehension. How dare a small group reject the wisdom and success of settler colonialism? Such refusal throws into doubt the entire system of North American rectitude, majoritarian representational democracy, and constitutional justice. It implies, even states outright, that a political system founded upon the systematic delegitmation and elimination of a resident population with ethically and legally recognized rights to their land never can be a just one. The procedures of refusal, Simpson shows, “requires a legal response to contain those who refuse, a move that then incites settler anxiety about the containability of Indian bodies and practices” (128).

Capitalist settler states prefer resistance, which can be negotiated or recognized. Thus the historical attempt to refigure “the Native American” as just another racial or “cultural” minority, one whose grievances have more to do with an exclusion from mainstream American and Canadian life than anything else. Of course Indians can be equal, liberal individuals in a democratic country, the state suggests; once racism and the social ills of poverty and addiction are solved, Indians will become just like everyone else. Note, Simpson points out, what is elided in such a move: the history of colonial appropriation of land, the destruction of native languages and collective practices, and the legal status of Indian peoples as sovereign nations. Positioning Native peoples as liberal individuals has been the logic of genocide for hundreds of years. The only proper response to this is a refusal of such a logic.

What does such refusal look like in practice? At its most basic level, it insists upon the historical truth of Indian…

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