Tag Archives: settler colonialism

Remedial Course in Indian History

My review of Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian for The New Inquiry.

For most non-Natives, Indians exist first in the imagination and then in the historical past. But every once in a while, the North American public is compelled to confront the living Indian in the material world. Last winter, for instance, the Idle No More movement brought large numbers of Indians into places associated with the modernity and mobility of white citizens: shopping centers and highways. These actions forced people who might not have thought of themselves as settlers to witness the grievances of Indians who consistently refuse to disappear. Another kind of testimony about the actuality of Indians emerged at the same time as Idle No More, also aimed at the unaware settler. Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America seeks to enlighten the settler by dispelling the fog that so often hangs around Indians and their relation to the nation-state. First published in Canada where it has become a national bestseller, the book seems written as a last chance for King, a respected public intellectual in Canada of Cherokee and Greek descent, to give his view of how Indians came to be, and what they will become. As a history of Indians told as one Indian’s conversation with himself, it is certainly a more illuminating and bold account of settler colonialism than the usual Indian history told as one white man’s conversation with his own desires.

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The Christ Complex Down Under

Poster for the movie details the children torn between primitive man and burning civilization. I like the use of “world’s last frontier”–exemplifies a fluidity between Australian outback and apocalyptic frontier in sci-fi.

I find it hard to believe that anyone found it necessary to resurrect Walkabout, the 1959 novel by James Vance Marshall, that was mostly forgotten until adapted into film in 1971 by Nicholas Roeg. Yet for some reason the usually discerning New York Review of Books has ordained it a “small, perfect book.”

The only thing that is perfect about this book, besides the short-lived pain of reading it, is how easy it is to tear apart.

It tells in pseudo-parabolic form the story of two American children, Peter and Mary, who are stranded in the Australian wilderness after watching the rest of the passengers on their airplane dissolve into fire. As they walk away from the ashes of civilized technology, a primordial world of otherness opens before them in all its horrifying expanse.

Just as their situation becomes dire, and we’re starting to think maybe this book could get interesting and the kids will die, an aboriginal boy on his adolescent rite, the “walkabout” of the title, discovers and leads them to food and water. Upon their meeting, in his typically overwrought tone of explanation, Marshall painfully demarcates the differences between whiteness and Indigeneity. While the primitive in Peter and Mary “had long ago been swept away…by the standardized pattern of the white man’s way of life”, the aboriginal “knew what reality was” and lived a life that was “unbelievably simple” and “utterly uncomplicated.”

Thus begins a thanksgiving myth for the Australian landscape in which the Peter is taught how to fish and Mary struggles with her own disgust over a naked black body. In the tragic clash of civilization and savagery, Mary’s contorted grimace at the boy’s nudity is interpreted as the perception of the spirit of death in him. Here, Marshall’s total lack of knowledge, research, and respect rears it head, his ignorance providing the central drama of the book. Brushing past tribal beliefs about death by magic, performed by a ritual executioner not a scared white girl, Marshall explains that the boy will soon die…. from superstition. And die he does but not before forgiving Mary and she, realizing her cruelty, accepts him as one of god’s children.

Besides the story being so blatantly colonial in its premise and plot, the style is the combination of dolled-up bible prose and a PowerPoint presentation. Marshall, in his desire to be the dispenser of moral parables, tell us exactly what and how to encounter everything in the world he has created. When Peter begins to do a dance mimicking the platypus, just as the aboriginal had mimicked the lyre bird, Marshall at the end of his description must spell out “shades of the bush boy and lyre bird” lest our memory fails to extend back twenty pages. To further the transfer of Indigenous identity from Aboriginal to Peter, Marshall has Peter marvel at the darkening color of his skin. Nothing in the book is subtle, nor is it innocent.

Later when Mary tells Peter that the aboriginal boy, referred to as “darkie” throughout the book, has gone to heaven, Marshall turns on the sentimentality of a multicultural poster. “…She believed it. More than believed it. Knew it. Knew that heaven, like earth, was one.” But of course while we may all be one, half of that “oneness” has to die for the other to live.

In the introduction to the new edition, written by Lee Siegel, much is made of Marshall’s  spiritual message while his “romantic excess” (i.e. racism) is glanced over and forgiven. To Siegel, who is guilty of such excesses himself, Marshall’s “modestly subversive variation on the Christian myth is simply another version of the necessity of people to care for one another.” In this case, it is necessary for an Aboriginal to care for white children and then only necessary for those white children to care for him after he’s dead.

And what is so subversive in killing off the Aboriginal? That is the oldest trope in Euro-American culture. Does the subversion come from the fact that Marshall is writing about Aboriginals at all? There is certainly nothing subversive about white writers bringing the Christ complex to a continent that doesn’t belong to them. This impulse to bring biblical stories to sites of contact with indigenous peoples is the literary equivalent of bringing priests along on your conquests, and it too has been happening for hundreds of years.

But of course this is about more than mere salvation. It is very much about the process of settlement. The savior at the end of the story is not actually the Aboriginal but the house of a white man waiting for the children after their journey. It is the literal settlement of foreigners, not a continued life in nature, that is the true end goal of the book. Though Peter and Mary cannot remain in the Garden of Eden, the paradise of primitiveness being forever lost to them, they can incorporate that experience into their identity in order to be better white settlers. The death of the Aboriginal boy because of his primitive superstitions suggests that they are in fact even better Aboriginals than the Aboriginal himself because of their Christian beliefs.

The walkabout all along has been the initiation rite for the white children. It requires the death of their primitive childhood and embodied in the literal death of the aboriginal boy, in order for them to take up the mantle of mature white settlers. It is as if the two children have gone away to a more dangerous version of summer camp. At the end of the book, Peter turns to Mary and says in the Aboriginal’s language, “Kurura,” meaning follow. It is supposed to be a touching moment. But for me this final transference  of Indigeneity into a white boy is like when Michael Jackson’s eyes glow at the end of the Thriller video. The monster has peeked out from behind its mask of innocence and walks away to continue the, in this case metaphorical, consumption of vulnerable bodies.

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An Indian Finds Comrades in India

Arundhati Roy listening to members of the Maoist army she traveled with for weeks in Central India. Source: outlookindia.com

“[Columbus] was looking for you and he ended up with us. I think we should talk about that!” That’s what my favorite professor had to say on the subject of the infamous India/Indian confusion while also lamenting the lack of a real conversation between post-colonial and Native studies. The two disciplines focus predominately on very different historical contexts, British imperialism and American settler colonialism, but the stories they tell share a lot of the same suffering and critical analysis. In her newest book, Walking with the Comrades, Arundhati Roy calls for new ways to talk about the current fight for land and life in India, and in doing so, she makes space for the conversations my professor noticed weren’t happening.

The similarities struck me almost immediately. Though the specific geography of the situation Roy describes was new to me, the history reflected something I was all too aware of– the continuing American conquest of Indian Country. In fact, I think indigenous peoples around the world, struggling to survive under oppressive regimes, will recognize what is happening right now in the Dandakaranya forest as part of the same fight to keep the “progress” of capitalism away from their homelands.

As in the case of American settlement, the Indian government is destroying the livelihoods of people it claims to want to help, while simultaneously launching a military campaign against them. It has been an ongoing assault ever since the establishment of the Indian Constitution, which makes the Indian government legal custodians of tribal homelands. Suddenly in 1950, people who had been using the forests for generations were denied access. Though the government had essentially robbed them of their sustenance and livelihood, it did grant them the right to vote. Not to be repetitive, but…as in the case of American settlement, the government’s desire to make indigenous people part of the citizenry was really a desire to take land.

The Maoists reject this assimilation and refuse to participate in elections. A photo in the book shows a banner that we here in America, indigenous peoples and settlers alike, should heed. It reads:

Stop India from becoming the grazing ground of Imperialism. The Central Government has no right to ask for our votes. Do not vote for those millionaires who are getting rich by selling off our wealth. Fight for self-reliant, revolutionary development. Boycott the Lok Sabha elections.

The boycotting of elections is one of the Maoist’s biggest issues and one the Indian government consistently points to as a sign of the party’s illegitimacy. But as many in India already know, it is the elections themselves that are illegitimate. More than eighty billion rupees were spent on the last general election in India, much of that money going to buying off the media for pre-eclection “coverage packages.”

So, Roy asks, where does the money come from? When huge mining companies are set to rake in trillions of dollars off of bauxite deposits alone, it isn’t hard to find where the wealth resides in India. Like the capitalist democracy India is now competing with, there is little difference between the world of business and the world of government. The same people who sit on the boards of the  mining companies launch political campaigns for positions of power. The current Home Minister P. Chidambaram once worked with huge mining company Vebdanta, which is one of the largest stakeholders in the bauxite deposits on tribal mountain lands.

Because she is one of the few exposing this corruption to a global audience, Roy has stirred up some bad blood with the government and been labeled a Maoist supporter. But this not such a rare thing. Ordinary, non-best-selling author, people are labeled an enemy of the state every day. Any hint of being sympathetic to the Maoists is liable to lead to prison. This had made life in some towns a lot more difficult as grocery stores and pharmacies can only sell products in small amounts to prevent people from aiding the guerillas in the forest who are caught off from supplies.

The message from the government is clear: whether you are a Maoist or not, all tribal people will suffer until the mining companies get what they need. In order to help achieve that end, Israel recently sold thermal imaging equipment and drones to the Indian government and trained their military in how to kill guerrilla fighters. Roy is right to ask, how will these unmanned drones know the difference between a teenager running through the forest and a Maoist insurgent? Will the government even try to differentiate?

As far as I know Roy did not provide material support to the Maoist army and although she is sympathetic to their cause and looks upon her young travel companions with an adoring gaze, she is by no means uncritical. She also, like many of her left fellows, disproves of killing in the name of the party, likening the murder of women who wouldn’t boycott elections to the Stalinist Purges and Mao’s Great Leap Forward. She understands, however, that their violence may be necessary. How can people who the government is already starving off lead a successful hunger strike?

Though the armed resistance may be justified, Roy wonders if the protracted war can ever end. Will the Maoists, once they succeed in ridding the mountains of mining companies, become just another powerful oppressor, killing anyone who dares to disagree? How can the interests and self-determination of the tribal peoples be kept front and center without dissolving into the interests of the party? As  Roy walks with the Maoists, many of them starving, young people from local tribes, she witnesses an alternative model of society. Though held down by her doubts and the dire reality of warfare, she is lifted by the imagination to think outside of capitalism and outside the nation-state. This ability for a radical imagination is at the heart of all resistance. Though we may not be Maoists and even if we believe in non-violence, indigenous people worldwide (and  anyone whose mere existence is already a form of resistance) have comrades in the Dandakaranya forest of India.

Roy has only recently come to be known as a political writer. Most know her as the award winning  author of the novel every critic loved, The God of Small Things. Despite her recently adorned press badge, Roy still has the pen of a verbose lyricist. Hence there is tension, almost a confusion, in this work between form and argument, between authorial voice and the informants’ voices, between the beautiful statement and the informative sentence. The book doesn’t even contain an index, framing  the text more as a travelogue than a source of information. Instead of practical explications, the book relies on feelings and big ideas.

While this makes for engaging reading, it can also leave the in-depth analysis too much in the background. On a few occasions, Roy points to a deeper analysis of the military industrial complex or  feminism in the Maoist party, but then moves on leaving the larger connections frayed. And though perhaps a petty qualm, I also found the photo captions to be especially egregious. Instead of brief informed descriptions of what/who was in the pictures, there were excerpts from the surrounding chapters, sometimes completely unrelated to the content of the photo. This created the sense that the real subject of the book was the intrepid writer scrawling for justice, rather than the militant revolutionaries she traveled with.

Fortunately, even when Roy is exercising her literary rather than journalistic muscles, the results are illuminating. Her poetry can be provoking and precise, such as when she say, “We are watching a democracy turning on itself, trying to eat its own limbs. We’re watching incredulously as those limbs refuse to be eaten.” It may not tell you the facts of the situation, but it certainly stirs the imagination.

It raises the question of what exactly the literature that will change the world is going to look like.

Book I Talked About:

Walking with the Comrades, by Arundhati Roy. Penguin Books, 2011.


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Riffin’ on The X-Files, part 2

The practice of the previous post fits into a larger project of mine I lovingly call “Indians and Aliens”, and by “project” I mean  obsession.  You may remember from my review of The Swing Voter of Staten Island that there is a noted trend in the sci-fi, horror, and fantasy genres of incorporating subtexts that deal with America’s anxiety over their genocidal history.  I am interested in studying how this anxiety plays out specifically in  story lines that revolve around the association between the landscape of the West and U.F.O’s.  Whether it be Roswell, Area 51 in Nevada, or Cowboys and Aliens, the connection between the lands of the frontier and visitors of the last frontier is one of the oldest  in the alien genre.  The genre also deals with people’s mistrust of their government and their sneaking suspicion there are secrets in this country as vast as the desert lands.  (Hint: one of those secrets is that America killed a whole bunch of populations in order to become America.)

The X-Files episode we just looked at, however, deals with a different kind of unknowable landscape and a different kind of “alien” being.  In “Detour” it is the swampy forests of southern Florida that are the setting for an age old battle typically associated with the frontier: the taming of wilderness in the pursuit of progress.  The alien beings populating this strange, vast landscape are not outright identified as Indians but are rather primitive looking men with glowing red eyes.

You might recall however that there was some ambiguity over the identity of the creatures.  The invisible men of the forest, indistinguishable from the trees and soil of their home, were definitely primitive but what first seemed like a metaphor for indigenous defenders was explained in the final scenes as Spanish conquistadors who had discovered the fountain of youth.  It is a very interesting conclusion considering that the traditional narrative of the Spanish conquistadors may include their cruelty towards Native peoples, but rarely ever portrays them as small primitive men—they are after all Europeans.  Perhaps then what Mulder is implying when he asks at the end of the episode “After four-hundred years in the forest, don’t you think they would have adopted perfectly to their environment?” is that the Spanish acquired a type of indigeniety due to their time in the forest.  This process of becoming indigenous means adopting all the typically racist markers of being Indian: animal-like, dirty, uncivilized, violent.

In that way “Detour” is a bit like The Heart of Darkness plot and other colonial tales of the frontier  where savage lands turn civilized men savage as well.  It also seems like a strange validation of the American form of occupation, as if somehow the loss of instinct and the distance from nature allows them to remain rational and human.  This narrative assuages fears Americans may have about the subconscious realization that they are the aliens in this land.

The X-Files as a show, and as the division of the F.B.I. within the show, operates to reveal that our fears, anxieties and suspicions are all in fact based on reality.  Mulder, as the rebel who cannot be contained, unmasks repressed paranoia to be warranted fears, and the ridicule he experiences is really just a further attempt to repress this truth.  For example, many Americans suspect that modern development on fragile ecosystems is a violent act, and “Detour” displays the violence, but also projects it onto the invisible primitive men monsters.  This allows viewers to face their anxieties about destroying  “indigenous species”, but also to feel vindicated in this destruction because of the inherent primitive violence of these species, which must be subdued in order for the life of ordinary citizens to continue.  This is one of the most common narratives of the frontier and of settler colonial societies in general: while the demise of the wilderness and the beings collapsed with it (Indians, buffalo, Palestinians, olive trees, etc) may be sad, it is necessary for the safety and prosperity of a vulnerable new nation project.  I won’t go into the reasons such a logic is flawed except to note the paradox of being both an invader and a victim.

 If you have any further suggestions of cultural texts awaiting “Indians and Aliens” analysis, please let me know and I can do a special post per your suggestion.


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