Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd sees the necessity of moving beyond a colonial framework in talking about Indigenous futures. By drawing upon Southeastern Indian concepts that focus on the balance between Upper and Lower Worlds, she examines how the U.S. has used its history with Indians to inform its current global policies. In her new book, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (UMN Press 2011), Byrd reimagines a future where Indigenous peoples have agency on their own lands and on their own terms. Here, Byrd answers questions about what brought her to this area of research as well as the conversations and interventions she hopes it will provoke.
First of all, what inspired the intellectual path that led you to write this book? Who were your primary influences?
There were so many minds that influenced, shaped, and inspired the book. My dissertation advisors at Iowa—Professors Mary Lou Emery and Anne Donadey—helped me to frame my initial inquiry as I struggled to articulate the critical deployment of cacophony as an intervention to how postcolonial theory has addressed (or not) the context of American Indians. Mary Lou Emery introduced me to the writings of Caribbean author Wilson Harris. His work in developing a Caribbean philosophy that addresses Indigenous peoples is in many ways the ethical center of my book. LeAnne Howe’s work was essential to the project and her short story, “Chaos of Angels,” delineates for me the Southeastern cultural aesthetic of haksuba and helps define the contest between Upper and Lower Worlds that affects and manifests in this world as chaos. In the book, I build on Howe’s story to define haksuba as cacophony as a way to articulate the processes that mask the colonization of American Indians within the discourses of race and racism. From there, I’d have to say Noenoe Silva, Taiaiake Alfred, Jeff Corntassel, and Hokulani Aikau really helped me understand the significance of grounding critical theory first through the framework of Indigenous philosophies. Finally, Māori poet Robert Sullivan gave a reading during an intensive two-week Indigenous governance course I co-taught in Hawai‘i. His poetry on Captain Cook and the transit of Venus was lyrically beautiful and the story stuck with me and became the primary touchstone for Transit of Empire.
What are some of the main interventions you hope to make with this book?
My primary hope for the book is that it might help catalyze discussions about the very real and ongoing colonial occupation of American Indian and Indigenous lands. Liberal settler societies are using multiculturalism and the investment in the nation-state to effectively disavow the colonization that made the liberal nation-state possible in the first place. Everyone—every diasporic migrant, every immigrant, every person forced into the new world—is affected by the colonization of American Indians. It is not part of some long dead past that can now be adjudicated by a more equal sharing of resources and the commons. My book, then, is hoping to demonstrate the strength of Indigenous critical theory, and in each chapter I try to address—and pull into tension—the broader interdisciplinary concerns that discourses of race and colonization engender within critical theory in the hopes that by disaggregating them slightly, it is possible to highlight the logics that have kept the colonization of Indigenous peoples deferred within theories addressing colonialism and its legacies.
In the introduction to the book, you discuss the conflation of colonization and racialization as historical processes. Could you explain how that trend has played out and why it’s problematic?
One of the concerns in the book is that within twentieth- and twenty-first century articulations of liberal democracy, race has become the primary site of intervention and critical engagement within the U.S. academy. Racialization is assumed to be a process of colonization within the United States. And certainly, analyzing the processes of racialization—the socially constructed categories of differentiation that justify the subordination of whole groups of people—goes a long way in addressing the historical and contemporary violences the United States perpetuates at home and abroad. But racialization alone cannot always unpack the historical impact of colonization upon Indigenous nations and lands. I argue in the book that theories we deploy to understand race and internal colonization often replicate colonialist discourses that serve to render American Indians as U.S. ethnic minorities rather than as citizens of colonized nations. By disaggregating the two terms slightly and focusing on the material distinctions between the two historical processes, my book demonstrates—in case studies that include a return to postcolonial discussions of Caliban, the Cherokee Nation’s decision to disenfranchise Cherokee Freedmen, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II—how the colonization of American Indians structurally informs the ways in which race is understood and constituted within the United States.
What do you mean when you say that the U.S. uses Indianness to propagate its empire?
In the book, I discuss how the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, as it has been interpreted by Chief Justice John Marshall, created the categories “foreign nation,” “several states,” and “Indian tribes.” In the rulings that led up to the Cherokee removal, Marshall argued that the founding fathers categorically separated Indian tribes from foreign nations, a reading of that clause which he then used to assert that Indian nations were somehow “domestic dependent nations.” However, the Commerce Clause is also describing relational powers Congress has: “to regulate Commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” The trick here is in the prepositions—with and among—that have been overshadowed by the three categories created by the Clause. Because Congress has the same relationship with foreign Nations and with Indian Tribes that differs from the one it has among the several States, I argue in the book, the U.S. is able to enact empire through a deployment of its colonial policies at the site of those relational powers. One of the most egregious examples of how the legal category of “Indian tribe” is being used to consolidate U.S. territorial holdings at the expense of Indigenous peoples comes in the form of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act and the debates that have surrounded the various attempts to pass it into law at the national level. In one of the hearings on the possible legislation, Senator Inouye declared that Hawaiians are Indians under the Commerce Clause. “The framers of the constitution,” he asserts, “did not import a meaning to those terms as a limitation upon the authority of Congress, but as descriptions of the Native people who occupied and possessed the lands that were later to become the United States.” It’s a stunning sentence and all done under the rubric of including the Hawaiian Kingdom as a foreign nation into the policies that have managed the colonization of American Indians.
Could you talk about how you define transit for the purposes of the book and why you think it’s an important frame in moving discussions beyond colonial discourse?
The work of Indigenous critical theory is, in part, to discuss the colonialist discourses that have affected Indigenous peoples and their lands. My use of transit doesn’t necessarily move us beyond colonial discourse as much as it attempts to diagnose its logics and logical fallacies. Transit is a reference in the book to many things, though I primarily use it to discuss how U.S. empire moves along the sightlines of Indians and the discourses of Indianness to manifest its control of territory and space. The transit I use here also comes from a reference to the transit of Venus, a rare astronomical event that happens twice every one hundred and twenty years. The 1761 and 1769 transits sent hundreds of European scientists and explorers to every corner of the globe and the simultaneous observation of the planet Venus as it made its way across the face of the sun served to inaugurate a notion of the planetary among those European observers. And as Captain Cook made his way to Tahiti and Hawai‘i to observe these events—and claim lands for Britain—he traveled through Pacific islands filled with peoples he called Indians. As a metaphor for how the U.S. uses discourses of Indianness to enact empire, a concept like transit captures the movement, oscillation, and changes that occur as “Indian” is stretched to include more and more contexts. Interestingly, the next transit of Venus will occur during the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association Meeting held this summer at the Mohegan Sun. The ideal viewing locations for the full duration of the 2012 transit include most of the Pacific Islands in an eerily exact parallel to the 1769 transit that sent Cook into the Pacific over 250 years ago. Reports are that the transit will be viewable from New England around sunset on June 5, and then only briefly.
You recently attended the Chickasaw annual meeting. What was your experience bringing the book back to your home community and how was it received there?
It was an incredible opportunity and experience to be part of the Chickasaw Annual Meeting as a Chickasaw author. While admittedly my book is rather dense and is often engaged in theoretical debates ranging from a critique of Gilles Deleuze to an analysis of how Indians are rendered homo sacer within legal rulings that then serve as precedence for the U.S. war on terror, what was so gratifying about taking my book back to my home community was just how proud the nation was of the ways in which all of us Chickasaws work to preserve our intellectual, artistic, and governance traditions. One of the highlights for me on the trip was to see all the work Amanda Cobb-Greetham has done to create the Chickasaw Cultural Center as a research center for scholars. Between that and the Chickasaw Press that Amanda runs, the Chickasaw Nation has an unparalleled commitment to developing and promoting the intellectual and cultural lives of the Chickasaw people. The second highlight for me from that trip was just sitting in the tent next to the Tishomingo capitol building and getting to meet and talk with people in the Nation. I had the opportunity to share stories with people who remember my family and Governor Byrd’s role in the Chickasaw government in the 1890s. I’m grateful to everyone who made my participation in the annual meeting possible this year.