Author: Fawaz, Ramzi
Date published: January 1, 2012
Settling Scores: Claiming Ground for Native and Indigenous Critique in the Americas Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. 320 pp.
The 1989 independent film Powwow Highway stands out as a unique contribution to the American road movie. The film tells the story of two Cheyenne tribesmen-the portly and naïve Philbert, a whimsical dreamer committed to the stories of his ancestors, and the world-weary Buddy Red Bow, a dedicated American Indian Movement freedom fighter and member of his tribal council-as they drive from their reservation in Lame Deer, Montana to Santa Fe, where Buddy's sister has been arrested on false charges of drug trafficking. While Buddy frets over his sister's uncertain fate, Philbert rescripts their adventure as a spirit journey, imagining their run-down car as a war pony guided by the Cheyenne's trickster god, Lightcloud. During their trek Philbert stops to visit "Sweet Butte," a native sacred ground, participate in a Cheyenne powwow, and finally, pay homage to his ancestors at Fort Robinson, a historical site commemorating the deaths of the more than 150 Cheyenne who fled Oklahoma in 1878 in search of their original homelands. In this way, Powwow Highway places Native Americans in the driver's seat of the road movie, and it sets native identity on the move as it travels through the very lands upon which native peoples continue to reside even as they are surrounded by the war machine of the US empire.
This vision of native and indigenous identity on the move, both literally and figuratively in transit along the routes of colonialism, defines the analytical framework of Jodi A. Byrd's masterful study, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. The Transit of Empire offers a cultural and political genealogy of the ways in which "Indianness" has functioned as the key concept through which the US empire has propelled itself across the Americas since the Age of Exploration. Like Philbert's memories of a Native American past manifesting itself in the interstices of a post-industrial present, so too Byrd's genealogy offers readers a series of mnemonic reminders of the ways in which native history, often defined by genocides, broken treaties, and struggles for political and social survival, echo through to the present day. In so doing, The Transit of Empire tracks the movement of settler colonialism in late 20th and 21st century conceptualizations of the Indian, while delivering a compelling charge to contemporary cultural and postcolonial theory to acknowledge and actively think through the existence of native peoples and their continued manipulation and historical erasure by the seemingly progressive ideology of American liberal multiculturalism.
Byrd deploys the framework of transit to describe two related, yet seemingly incommensurate movements: the literal transit of the European and American empires across the globe since the Enlightenment, as well as the mobile and shifting meanings of indigenous identity as native peoples have evolved to keep pace with mutations in the political and social operations of colonialism. In highlighting the concurrent movements of colonialism and indigeneity, Byrd seeks to redress a common elision in postcolonial studies and the study of the US empire in American Studies more broadly. This elision is defined by the recurrent habit of displacing indigenous people within a historical past-tense, in which their destruction by the operations of colonialism is seen as a horrific and regrettable event, yet with no direct ramifications in the present. Byrd's project then, is both recuperative-identifying and making present native and indigenous subjectivity within contemporary theoretical, political, and cultural thought-and generative-developing a theoretical framework through which indigeneity might become an avenue for a critique of the operations of liberal multiculturalism.
Recent interventions in cultural and political theory, particularly work in queer and disability studies, have trained their critical eye at the underlying ideological assumptions of liberal multiculturalism, including its patronizing response to continued forms of structural inequality and its maintenance of a white, middle-class mainstream norm as the measure of social success in US society. In The Transit of Empire, Byrd reveals an even more foundational erasure of the history of settler colonialism in the ameliorative practices of the so-called multicultural state. This state seeks to enfold an array of underrepresented groups within its umbrella of services, including racial, gendered, and sexual minorities alongside the native peoples whose lands it originally dispossessed in order to reproduce its power in the first place. Even in its apparent egalitarianism, the liberal multicultural project nullifies native peoples' claims to land ownership, political sovereignty, and even indigenous identity by making the American government the guarantor of their rights and privileges rather than their own native governments that still function as autonomous nations within the geographical boundaries of the United States. As Byrd explains,
The cacophony of competing struggles of hegemony within and outside institutions of power, no matter how those struggles might challenge the state through loci of race, class, gender, and sexuality serves to misdirect and cloud attention from the underlying structures of settler colonialism that made the US possible as oppressor in the first place. As a result, the cacophony produced through US colonialisms and imperialism domestically and abroad often coerces struggles for social justice for queers, racial minorities, and immigrants into complicity with settler colonialism. (xvii)
Following a broader trend in recent Native American and Indigenous scholarship, Byrd's project works to transform Native and Indigenous Studies from a field of inquiry centered on the description of native life- ways and worldviews, to a theoretical method whose applications potentially transform the foundational assumptions of contemporary critical theory as well as cultural and political history. By recasting Native Studies as a unique form of cultural and political critique, Byrd brings questions of indigeneity to bear on the entire breadth of critical theory and interdisciplinary studies in the humanities. At the same time, Byrd's analytical methods are explicitly interdisciplinary, bringing together literary and cultural studies, political theory, and performance studies to explore a vast array of sources through which "Indianness," defined as the state of wilderness or savagery associated with pre-modern cultural norms, has taken shape as a locus of power for colonial projects throughout the Americas. This book will be of interest not only to those who work in Native and Indigenous Studies and postcolonial theory, but to any scholar interested in theorizing the link between state power and cultural identity, including questions of sovereignty, nationalism, and liberal politics.
"Indianness" on the Move
The dual transits of empire and indigeneity manifest themselves in the larger organization of Byrd's book, whose six chapters together offer a kaleidoscopic view of the manifold ways in which Indianness has served as a transit within empire for a wide variety of groups, including the agents of settler colonialism, non-indigenous minority populations hailed by liberal multiculturalism, critical theorists, performance artists, and novelists to name a few. For Byrd, the blatant and recurrent presence of Indianness within these seemingly disparate discourses and their respective cultural, political, and intellectual arenas, alongside a general ignorance of native lifeways and political realities attests to the necessity of developing an indigenous critique that places settler colonialism itself (rather than simply its racializing logics) at the center of postcolonial studies of empire. To do so, Byrd develops two conceptual tools born from the intellectual investments of Native and Indigenous Studies that serve to make visible the common erasure of histories of native dispossession within these various arenas. Byrd labels these concepts "cacophony" and "parallax viewing." On the one hand, cacophony seeks to account for the historical and political distinctions between the multitude of competing voices that are made legible, yet simultaneously antagonistic, within the liberal multicultural state; on the other, parallax viewing, which involves a practice of moving between multiple, and often antagonistic, perspectives on the same circumstance, allows one to see the distortions of native identity and history created when indigenous subjectivity becomes collapsed into other forms of difference, most commonly race.
Byrd's own project begins with an extensive critique of the poststructural and postcolonial theories that have deployed the figure of the Native or "Indian" as a rhetorical trope while eliding the lived realities of native experience. Many scholars unfamiliar with the distinct history of postcolonial and native studies might be surprised to find that the two intellectual lineages have often been at odds. Byrd's introduction offers a thick engagement with the contested analytical legacies of these two modes of critique. While postcolonial theory has been crucial in developing a critique of both the European and American empires, its various expressions have traditionally focused on diasporic movements across land and sea and the enslavement or subjugation of racialized populations, rather than the genocidal removal of indigenous peoples from their homelands. In a related move, postcolonial studies has often centralized the study of the vertical relationship between colonizer and colonized, rather than the horizontal relationships between the varied groups oppressed by colonial rule who are subsequently forced to make demands on the settler state from uneven positions of power. Finally, the language and rhetoric of postcolonial critique commonly refers to indigenous or native peoples in a tone of sentimental regret, briefly acknowledging the prior existence and subsequent extermination of indigenous populations, but rapidly shifting attention to the contemporary problematics of racism and structural inequality that haunt the legacy of earlier colonial ventures. These characteristics of postcolonial studies, admittedly broadly sketched in the space I have here, have often left the field unable to deal with the present-day circumstances of surviving indigenous populations, particularly in the US, who live in putative sovereign states that are continually negated or encroached upon not only by state power but also by the persistent framing of indigenous peoples and cultures as always already deceased relics of an irredeemable colonial past.
As Byrd shows in her first chapter, poststructural theory and cultural studies have fallen into similar pitfalls by deploying the concept of the Indian as a figurative tool for making claims about postmodern subjectivity and the racial logics of the US empire. For instance, Byrd shows how in the works of thinkers like Derrida and Deleuze and Guattari, the Indian functions as a prediscursive or primordial figure that overturns Enlightenment assumptions about human rationality, historical teleology, and the stability of language and identity. Deleuze and Guattari fetishize the Indian as an embodiment of rhizomatic thinking, a migratory figure with no set history, what they call the "Indian without ancestry," that represents the limits of Western linear (or arboreal) thought. In this scheme, the Indian becomes the gateway in poststructuralist theory for experimental, rhizomatic modes of thinking about identity and history that also transforms Indianness into a kind of conceptual enchantment rather than a lived condition. This ahistorical appropriation of the Indian as a site of radical alterity, essentially the break with modernity, celebrates the Indian only to reify the colonial binary between Enlightenment rationality and the savage, pre-modern Indian subject, who is conceived not as a living person but as a conceptual metaphor that facilitates poststructural critique.
Alternatively, in contemporary culture studies, Byrd shows how the Indian has become merely a haunting or a trace of settler colonialism that has been eclipsed by the waxing importance of racial hierarchy (rather than claims to indigenous identity) in the workings of the US empire. As Byrd claims, "Simply put, prevailing understanding of race and racialization within US postcolonial, area, and queer studies depend upon an historical aphasia of the conquest of indigenous people. Further, these framings have forgotten as Moreton-Robinson has argued, that "'the question of how anyone came to be white or black in the United States is inextricably tied to the dispossession of the original owners and the assumption of white possession'" (xxvi). In an exacting critique of Amy Kaplan's reading of Perry Miller's introduction to Errand into the Wilderness, Byrd shows how Kaplan displaces Miller's repeated references to the American "wilderness"-associated with Native Americans and an untamed Indianness-onto the jungles of Africa, relocating the origins of the US empire in African slavery rather than the original dispossession of lands from native peoples. Byrd makes clear that thinkers like Kaplan are fully aware of, and sympathetic to, the plight of native and indigenous people but that they simultaneously eschew a grounding of postcolonial critique in the realm of indigenous dispossession because of a perception that these originary acts of violence have largely receded into the horizon of the colonial past. The purpose of Byrd's critiques is not to offer a litany of missteps on the part of these scholars but to make visible an underlying colonial operation in the very projects that purport to uncover and work against the logic of empire.
Byrd boldly contends that if scholars acknowledged the contemporary reverberations of this foundational act of violent dispossession, it would reveal that the US empire does not expand through an active search for new frontiers, as has traditionally been argued, but rather through the projection of the category of the Indian onto a variety of landscapes and peoples purportedly requiring the intervention of modern American civilization. Where the frontier model of the American empire locates the agent of colonialism in the US government and its ever-expanding military and economic reach beyond its national borders, the model of Indianness shows how the initial colonial settlement of native lands is re-performed within an empire by a variety of non-governmental agents. Most significant among these are the very minority populations once excluded from the sphere of full citizenship (including racial, gender, and sexual minorities) but now perceived as proper converts to liberal multiculturalism and hence legitimate agents of America's "civilizing" mission within and without the borders of the US. This is perhaps one of Byrd's most extraordinary discoveries and an argument in and of itself for the necessity of an indigenous critique capable of tracking how contemporary empire continues to mask its original decimation of native peoples even as it appears to address the needs of underprivileged minorities within its borders.
Listening for Cacophony in Settler Colonialism
To address the elision of native voices and genealogies of dispossession in poststructural and postcolonial theories and American Studies, Byrd deploys a critical conceptual tool that she labels "cacophony." Byrd uses cacophony to describe the competing voices that vie for legitimacy and recognition across multiple axes of colonial domination: "Cacophony, therefore, focuses not only vertically on the interactions between the colonizer and colonized, but horizontally between different minority oppressions within settler and arrivant landscapes on the baseline between racialization and conquest" (31). For Byrd, the heterogeneity of such voices has often been flattened out by the work of postcolonial studies, which has focused its attention on racialization as the operative mode of colonialism- put simply, the hierarchical arrangement of power on the basis of ethno-racial identity-subsequently collapsing the experience of indigenous people, whose identity is more properly grounded in geographical place before race, onto the experience of racial and other minorities. Byrd makes clear that cacophony is not intended to replicate postmodern or poststructuralist notions of multivalent subjectivity or the endless play of signifiers; rather, cacophony implies voices engaged in struggle, often speaking over one another but in distinct registers that cannot be made equivalent. In her second and third chapters, Byrd performs cacophony as a critical reading method, analyzing the ways in which Indianness has come to stand in for other forms of racialized identity in a variety of literary texts, both classical and contemporary, that illuminate the histories of colonialism and the genocidal practices of colonial nations while also disavowing the actual presence of native and indigenous peoples.
Byrd's most successful performance of reading for cacophony can be found in her second chapter, in which she develops an intellectual genealogy of the figure of Caliban from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Rather than attempting to read Caliban exclusively through Native and Indigenous Studies, thereby reifying the figure as an allegory for the experience of native peoples, Byrd analyzes the competing interpretations of Caliban in the history of literary and cultural studies from the late 19th century to the present. This vast body of scholarly work, including works by writers like Aimé Césaire, Octavio Mannoni, Abena Busia, George Lamming, and Gayatri Spivak, has taken up Caliban as an embodiment of a wide array of oppressions across European and US colonial enterprises. As Byrd explains, "The fundamental textual indeterminacies surrounding Caliban's racial origins in Shakespeare's original text, then, allows, critics, novelists, and poets to interpret Caliban within recognizable historical and racialized subjectivities spanning the Atlantic to the Mediterranean to Africa" (58). Byrd meticulously tracks how literary and postcolonial theorists have variously identified Caliban as an allegory for the suffering of the Irish under British rule, "as Latin American intellectual or militant, as African, as slave, or as founding father of the US literary canon" (61). Bringing cacophony to bear on these various literary analyses, Byrd shows how an overdetermined investment in transforming Caliban into an emblem of postcolonial theorizing has simultaneously effaced his potential embodiment of indigeneity (as an inhabitant of the island prior to the arrival of Prospero and his men) and collapses colonial practices of racialization onto indigenous figures.
Byrd is not invested in reifying Caliban as a native figure. She seeks to unpack the ways that a variety of postcolonial interpretive practices have fetishized Caliban in the interest of laying claim to his symbolic value vis-à-vis a distinct minority identity as a figure of racial empowerment, rather than uncover the historical roots which have made the figure available for such readings in the first place. In so doing, Byrd explicitly critiques Gayatri Spivak's contention that Caliban functions as a blank slate or empty receptacle endlessly open to reinterpretation on the basis of his allegorical function as a cipher for a host of racial identities. For Byrd, such a claim can only be true if one willfully ignores the very founding condition upon which Caliban becomes available for such readings: his presence as an indigenous member of the island whose native identity must be rearticulated by Prospsero and his men as a racialized identity in order to be legible to the logics of colonialism. By failing to recognize this basic fact, Byrd suggests that Spivak and others have inadvertently re-performed this colonial violence, seeing in Caliban symbolic emptiness where there is overdetermined meaning grounded on an elision of native origins.
Parallax Viewing as a Challenge to the Logics of Empire
For Byrd, the practice of cacophony requires an act of parallax viewing, the ability to see the same set of circumstances or problems from multiple, and incommensurate, vantage points simultaneously, in order to discern the distinctions between competing voices easily misread as equivalent or coterminous. Byrd's understanding of parallax, a term that underwrites nearly all her close readings of literary, legal, artistic, and intellectual texts, comes from two sources: astronomy and critical theory. In astronomy, parallax describes the distortive effect that takes place when one celestial body eclipses another (as when Venus or the Moon eclipses the sun). As one body traverses the face of another, the larger mass tends to distort the shape and size of the smaller body crossing it, especially along the edges. To account for this distortion, astronomers pinpoint two locations along a single baseline on Earth from which they can mathematically triangulate the distance between Earth and an astronomical object. This particular astronomical phenomenon is important to Byrd because of its location in the history of Western colonization of the Americas.
One of the larger framing narratives that undergirds Byrd's project is the 1769 transit of Venus across the face of the Sun, an event that galvanized European astronomers to travel across the globe to amass data on the location, size, and movement of Venus in the hope of developing more accurate estimations of Earth's relative relationship to the Sun and the cosmos more broadly. The transit of Venus was also the impetus for Captain James Cook's travels across the Pacific, which would ultimately lead him to the Hawaiian Islands and pave the way for a four centuries-long project of European colonial expansion. The celestial transit of Venus then, quite literally transited Europeans across the globe as part of a scientific mission underwritten by a colonial impulse to witness, and thereby claim ownership of, an uncharted wilderness that would soon come to be understood as the Americas. Taking up parallax as a theoretical concept, Slavoz Zizek reads it as the practice of interpreting the same phenomenon from multiple and opposing positions in order to try and access the "real" conflicts that are subsumed beneath the veneer of commensurability between viewpoints that are actually in conflict. Zizek sees parallax as both a distortion and a necessary tool, for it simultaneously convinces the viewer that the same set of tools can be deployed to analyze an object from different positions (for example, that racial logics can account for native identity) while also forcing a rapid analytical movement between vantage points that allows the conflicts between these positions to flicker between the distorted perceptions. For Byrd, the metaphor of parallax describes a similar theoretical distortion that takes place between racialization and colonization.
According to Byrd, as poststructural and postcolonial thinkers have worked to unveil the underlying racial logics of colonialism, they often conflate this practice with the colonization of Indian lands, whereby the very category of the Indian simply becomes another racial identity akin to African American, Latino American, and Asian American subjectivity. Even as this conflation appears to redress the racism at the heart of colonial thinking, it in fact reifies colonial logics that imagine a terra nullias, or empty landscape on the very terrain upon which indigenous people actually live, as a space awaiting colonial arrival. As Byrd repeatedly points out, Native Americans have a different historical trajectory in relation to colonialism based on the dispossession of lands, rather than on enslavement or racialization. Though geographically "internal" to what is now the United States, Native Americans live on putatively sovereign lands (562 to be exact) which are independent nations consistently at odds with the machinations of the liberal multicultural state. The state seeks to assimilate native peoples in much the same way it imagines ameliorating the horrors of racism, sexism, and homophobia through campaigns to embrace "diversity" across race, class, and gender lines. The conflation of race and colonization in the reading of Native American and indigenous history not only erases the continued struggle of native peoples to maintain power over their lands as a question of political sovereignty, rather than racial equality, but also makes other minority groups collusive with the colonizing practices of the liberal multicultural state by demanding that native people's cathect their desires toward inclusion in the American nation. To understand the complex logics by which racialization and colonization become read as equivalent, in her final three chapters, Byrd deploys a parallax viewing practice to address legal and political struggles over the sovereignty of native lands that stretch back to the numerous treatise of the 19th century and extend into contemporary battles over the recognition of various minority and indigenous groups.
In one of her most potent examples, Byrd develops a close reading of the parallax logics at work in the on-going political battle between the Cherokee Nation and the Congressional Black Caucus over the modern- day citizenship status of the descendents of former Cherokee slaves. In March of 2007, the Cherokee Nation voted to disenfranchise the descendents of former Cherokee slaves (commonly referred to as Cherokee Freedmen) as inhabitants of native lands with no ethno-racial claim to "authentic" native ancestry. News of this momentous decision prompted the Congressional Black Caucus to launch threats of legal recrimination against the Cherokee Nation for its negation of the rights of African Americans on US soil. Between 2007 and 2011, a series of bills have been put before congress to halt federal funding to the Cherokee Nation on the basis of civil rights violations, and more specifically, the breaking of an 1866 treaty that granted native citizenship rights to all Cherokee freedmen and their descendents in perpetuity. Through a discursive analysis of these legal logics operating on the various sides of the debate, Byrd points to the ways in which a deeply racist, yet sovereign political act on the part of the Cherokee Nation, has been viewed through the logics of liberal multiculturalism as a violation of American democratic inclusion and equality. The critique of the Cherokee Nation's actions relies on a long- standing tradition within the rhetoric of civil rights to conceive of race and class inequality through the model of "internal colonialism." This model equates the social and economic depredations experienced by minority populations within the borders of the nation with the broader violences of settler colonialism in its appropriation and subjugation of native lands. While offering a compelling critique of the structural inequalities that maintain rigid hierarchies of power, health, and security within the liberal state, the internal colony thesis links the very idea of colonialism to an assumed "internal" or "domestic" space that is void of any other sovereign bodies such as native nations, which are internal to the United States only insofar as they are literally within the geographical locus of America even as they stand outside of it as politically autonomous entities.
At no point in the public legal debates surrounding the Cherokee Nation's decision have the major players addressed the right of native peoples to adjudicate their own laws as fully functioning government entities. This elision has served to mask the colonial practices of essentially making invisible the colonial practices of the federal government, and its representatives in the Congressional Black Caucus, which see themselves as merely enforcing the protection of civil liberties when they were in fact negating the very sovereign authority of native nations. As Byrd elucidates,
What ultimately emerges is a competition between racist ideologies of exclusion that deny Southeastern Freedmen within the 'Five Civilized Tribes' and colonialist hegemonies of inclusion to the United States that seek to deny utterly those nations' inherent rights to sovereignty and land...the calls for sovereignty by the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma are heard by the colonizing nation as the mimesis of white Southern demands for states' rights [while] Democratic House members of Congress are heard by the colonized Cherokee Nation as the ventriloquism of US colonial policies that led to termination and assimilation when they frame Cherokee Nation and Freedmen within the teleology of racial struggle within the United States. (129)
Through an analytic of parallax viewing that moves rapidly between all sides of these debates, Byrd shows how settler colonialism distorts the actual conditions under which indigenous peoples live their social and political existence as both external or Other to state policy, but also somehow bound to the laws of that state as minorities required to uphold a US multicultural agenda.
The Transit of Empire is a book that truly lives up to its title, transiting its reader through the complex routes by which Indianness as lived experience and colonial signifier has facilitated the movement of peoples and political programs in the shoring up of the US empire. Its extraordinary range of texts and its interdisciplinary approach to the interlocking relationship between literary, legal, artistic, and theoretical practices and cultural productions attests to the incredible tenacity of the idea of Indianness despite decades of scholarship that has attempted to dismantle regimes of colonial thought. In turn, it points to the necessity for an indigenous critique in contemporary critical theory. Byrd brings Indianness back to life as a contemporary presence in the juridical, cultural, and political life of the US empire, rather than a mere haunting or echo of the long-dead victims of settler colonialism. At a moment when the critique of the US empire is urgently necessary, Byrd offers us a potent method by which we might transit ourselves through the currents of contemporary political struggle with greater clarity about the originary conditions of dispossession and violent genocide that made the very idea of an American nation possible. By way of conclusion, I wish to offer some reflections on some of the possible questions that Byrd generates for those working in the interlocking fields of postcolonial studies, American cultural studies, and political and cultural theory.
Readers invested in ethnographic studies of the lifeways of native peoples or anthropological fieldwork in native communities might be suspicious of the apparent lack of actual native voices in Byrd's rich study of the cacophonies of liberal multiculturalism. Yet this critique would sidestep the overarching thrust of Byrd's work, which is less invested in a cataloguing of Native American worldviews and social practices and more interested in tracking the material effects of a complex discursive formation that deploys Indianness as a vehicle for the maintenance and transit of empire. A more pointed critique would address the variety of voices Byrd places in conversation; though Byrd's texts are extraordinarily varied in time, genre, and theme (including analyses of performance art by Coco Fusco and Guillérmo Gomez-Peña; the speculative fictions of William Harris, Geoff Ryman, and Gerold Vizenor; African American blues traditions; and the legal battles for Native Hawaiian sovereignty to name a few), she focuses her attention almost exclusively on racialized voices within cacophony. While Byrd makes many gestures towards the voices of gendered, sexualized, and classed figures-initially including the categories of queer and gender identity alongside race in the catalog of cacophony-they are rarely the center of her attention and one is left wondering about the potential affinities between indigenous identity and these latter constructions. Paradoxically then, in critiquing the conflation of racialization and colonization, Byrd inadvertently reifies this binary by focusing her analytical gaze on the cacophonous competition between indigeneious and racial struggles, as opposed to multi-axial engagements enacted across a range of identity formations.
For instance, Byrd never acknowledges the potential affinities between struggles for indigenous sovereignty and disability rights movements; both indigenous studies and disability studies have struggled in their own ways to combat the tendency to allegorize their respective identity groups as ciphers for other forms of oppression rooted in race, gender, class, and sexuality. The critique of disability as merely a "prosthetic" allegory for racial minority status (or for any other identity), has been central to a Disability Studies framework that, like Native and Indigenous Studies, has sought to offer a broader theoretical intervention into questions of subjectivity, political sovereignty, and agency alongside a recuperation of the lived experiences of disabled people. Considering the centrality of health concerns in native communities-which struggle with a lack of access to healthcare and heightened rates of diabetes, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS-it would seem that disability and Native American politics should be in a more lively theoretical conversation, willfully risking a certain amount of overlap or conflation for their mutual interests. Though affinities between native and indigenous identity and other forms of social existence and oppression certainly appear in Byrd's readings, such affinities are rare and often relegated to the realm of the imaginary or fictional. I would argue that the lack of identifiable affinities across indigenous and other worlds is at least partly attributable to a larger framework that has come to dominate many studies of contemporary US state power that assume the ideological supremacy of liberal multiculturalism and its flattening out of difference as a pre-determined given in today's political atmosphere.
Like many contemporary texts that seek to question the assumed social good of liberal multicultural ideologies, The Transit of Empire often projects the hegemony of the liberal multicultural state as a monolithic edifice whose power extends everywhere and is always already consolidated in advance. One wonders whether or not the liberal multicultural state is actually a clearly identifiable structure or set of institutions, and whether its ideological reach is as universal and assumed as Byrd and her contemporaries, including scholars like Jasbir Puar, David Harvey, Chandan Reddy, and Elizabeth Povinelli, often claim. Though Byrd rarely invokes the megalith of "neo-liberalism" the liberal multicultural state often comes to stand in for this presumed system that operates within the logic of late capital, as though the desire to include minorities previously denied full citizenship rights and legal recognition is the primary project of contemporary state power or even of the left more broadly.
The dual movement of critiquing the hegemonic function of liberal multiculturalism while assuming its status as a universally recognizable hegemony poses a second question that I returned to throughout my reading: if liberal multiculturalism and American conceptions of democracy do in fact function as colonial projects in the context of native rights and sovereignty, is the complete autonomy and political isolation of native peoples and their nations necessarily the solution to this on-going problem? There is a tendency in Byrd's work to present encounters between native and non-native peoples as always defined by a destruction of native sovereignty or else the injection of colonial ideals and values into native political and social practice, rather than a generative engagement defined by mutual or reciprocal exchange. Certainly, under current political and economic conditions, the likelihood of non-coercive social and political reciprocity between the US state and native nations is highly unlikely, but I was left wondering if democracy is always necessarily tainted by colonial aspirations and if it is as easily relegated to the realm of ideological corruption as critics of liberal multiculturalism sometimes imply. The seeming impossibility of such interactions and the development of a collective good that might serve the interests of both native and non-native peoples leaves much to question: including whether or not shared forms of difference between native people's and other minoritized groups can ever be generative-rather than simply another form of colonial practice that uses Indianness to forward its goals-and whether or not political sovereignty and autonomy is incommensurate with cross-cultural engagement and reciprocity.
Let me close by returning to the image I opened with. At the conclusion of Powwow Highway, the formerly cynical Buddy Red Bow is inspired by his companion Philbert's belief in the ability of Cheyenne myths and fables to inform contemporary Native American responses to conditions of political repression. Enlivened by Philbert's bold jailbreak of his sister, Buddy enters Philbert's discursive fantasy and imagines himself as a Cheyenne warrior defending his people from white colonialists, in this instance the Sante Fe police. Leading the police on a wild chase beyond city limits, the band of outlaws are aided by their tribe's Chief Joseph, who has traveled to Santa Fe to help Buddy and Philbert in their mission. Releasing a heard of cattle onto the highway, Chief Joseph stalls the police long enough to pick up his tribesman and their motley crew of fugitives, including Buddy's sister, her two young children, and her feisty friend Rabbit, before heading back on the highway towards Lame Deer. Though the narrative leaves us unsure about their fate, the story implies that haven might be found at the reservation, a sovereign territory that the Santa Fe police cannot encroach upon. Will Buddy, Philbert, and their companions be extradited or will the strength of native sovereignty protect them? The film leaves this critical question open, instead focusing on the transit of actual Indians, rather than Indianness, through the dangerous yet potentially exhilarating realms of the US empire. Like Buddy and Philbert's discursive movement between the worlds of lived and remembered native experience, Jodi Byrd's The Transit of Empire traverses material and symbolic realms through which native and indigenous identities have been forged under the yoke of settler colonialism. Throughout, Byrd's analysis offers a warrior vision of what it might mean to combat the violence of colonialism through the exacting critiques of indigenous theory, a figurative weapon with which to symbolically settle the scores of native history and ground claims for an as yet unwritten American Indian future.
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