Indigeneity and class the other way around: Benjamin Balthaser, ‘From Lapwai to Leningrad: Archie Phinney, Marxism, and the Making of Indigenous Modernity’, Ab Imperio, 1, 2020, pp. 39-58


Abstract: Although the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) was controversial, it undeniably ushered in a new era of governmentality for indigenous people in the United States. The IRA has been debated since its inauguration, but less attention has been paid to the ways in which it is part of an ongoing theorization of Native American modernity. Archie Phinney, a Nez Percé intellectual and activist who studied anthropology at Columbia University under Franz Boas and then later in Leningrad, became one of the few indigenous intellectuals at the time to fuse a Marxist analysis of capitalism and modernity with an indigenous epistemology of sovereignty. In a series of essays, op-eds, seminar papers, and notes, Phinney’s position is that Native Americans have been forcibly conscripted into capitalist modernity and that their question is less whether they can revive the “old ways” than whether they can alter the conditions of domination by capitalism and settler colonialism. Phinney does not reject modernity but instead asks how indigenous people can find a way to remain “alert modern communities” and autonomous democratic subjects. By analyzing Soviet forms of minority nationalism, Marxian theories of history, and modern theories of race, Phinney prefigures what Kevin Bryuneel calls the “third space of sovereignty” by arguing that Native Americans need to find modes of collective economic independence, while also forming alliances with other oppressed groups through autonomous organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), which Phinney helped found. Working within the Bureau of Indian Affairs while at the same time, as an NCAI founder, fiercely criticizing the state, Phinney both lived and theorized a dialectical sense of modernity in his life and writings.

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