I ran across a mention of Avril Bell’s Relating Indigenous and Settler Identities in a call for papers that referred to the term “settler imaginary,” and I was surprised that I hadn’t encountered the book in any of the reading I did for my comprehensive exams. So—since libraries are closed because of the pandemic—I ordered a copy and, when it arrived, sat down to read and take careful notes. What exhausting work! How did I manage to do this for a year while I was reading for my comprehensives? The way I wrote a summary of this text, I suppose—by slogging through.
Like the summaries I wrote for those examinations, this one is very long and detailed, mostly because Bell covers a lot of ground in this book, and I want to be sure that this summary is useful for me in the future. I found the posts I made while studying for my comprehensives became a kind of searchable database, which made writing those examinations easier—certainly much easier than if I had relied on scribbled notes, inscrutable marks in the margins of books, and folded-over pages. Because I’m likely to use Bell’s book later on, I thought I would follow the same procedure. If this summary is useful for anyone else, all the better.
Bell’s book begins with a discussion of the movie Avatar, a parable about colonialism: miners extracting “unobtainium” from the planet Pandora, soldiers fighting (but unable to defeat) the planet’s inhabitants, the Na’vi, and scientists learning about the flora and fauna, as well as the Na’vi, with the goal of getting the Na’vi to move away. To accomplish that goal, Bell writes, “the scientists need to get close to the Na’vi, to learn their language and interact with them” (1). In order to get close to the Na’vi, “each scientist has an avatar, a second body made out of the combination of Na’vi and human DNA. While the human body sleeps in a ‘pod’ on the company’s base, the avatar is awake and studying life on Pandora” (1). Some of the scientists, including the movie’s protagonist, Jake Sully, empathize with the Na’vi and admire them, because they “live an authentic life, spiritually connected to both nature and their ancestors” (1). The Na’vi are based on this planet’s Indigenous cultures, and the representation of their culture “draws on long-standing stereotypes of Indigenous peoples that contrast their values and way of life sharply with those of capitalist modernity” (1). “The Na’vi live in harmony with nature, in contrast to the destructiveness of the humans’ capitalist and technological engagement with the natural world,” Bell writes. “While the human society is driven by insatiable desires for more wealth, Na’vi society appears static, unchanging, maintaining balance with the natural world and with the spirits of their ancestors” (1-2). In addition, human and Na’vi societies are “distinctly incompatible”: to get what they desire, the humans will destroy the Na’vi, and to maintain their way of life, the Na’vi will have to get rid of the humans. “The two—indigenous people and colonizers/settlers—are drawn dichotomously in incompatible contrast to each other,” Bell notes, and the film thus “tells the well-worn story of colonization and exploitation as romance and is testimony to the continuing power of the archetypes of noble, authentic indigeneity and rapacious modern, capitalist development” (2). The humans romanticize the Na’vi way of life even as they destroy it, but in the film, despite “the implicit critique of capitalist development, its destructive forces are given full reign here. The Na’vi social order is shattered and their village destroyed, before the narrative takes a less common twist that results in the banishing of the mining company” (2). The Na’vi are left hoping that they can rebuild their society, and the film’s audience, “[l]ike colonizing settlers,” end up looking nostalgically at, and identifying with, what they have destroyed (2).
For Bell, Avatar “recounts a classic settler colonial fantasy,” in which some settlers are “redeemed by conversion to the indigenous way of life” (2). “It is Sully, rather than the miners and their supporting forces, who represents the settler colonial subject”: he falls in love with the Na’vi princess, abandons his human body for his Na’vi avatar, and uses his knowledge of humans to defeat their attack and rebuild Na’vi society (2). “Sully’s conversion and redemption tracks the recurring settler fantasy in which the difference between indigenous and settler peoples disappears and the two are united as one,” a split that Lorenzo Veracini (in a book I need to read) point out “follows a specifically American version of this fantasy,” in which American settlers are distinct from the colonizing British, who are banished after the Revolution (2). Bell writes,
This tale is wearyingly familiar to any student of settler colonialism. For me, a settler descendant myself, it is depressing that this romance can still be told and lauded, despite the very real earthly correlates to the destruction of the Na’vi way of life. I am stunned at how little we, settler peoples, have learnt about ourselves, our histories and our relations with indigenous peoples, that this story can be repeated and, more particularly, celebrated so widely, in the twenty-first century. (3)
“The repetition of this double settler move—to continue to colonize and simultaneously to seek redemption—is at the heart of this book,” Bell continues. “So too are indigenous strategies of resistance and assertions of autonomy and survival. It is within this context that the juxtaposition of (indigenous) authenticity and (settler) modernity, so evident in Avatar, is a recurring theme in what follows” (3). That juxtaposition, which goes back to Enlightenment notions of the Modern Man and the Noble Savage, “continues to play out in the relationship between settler and indigenous peoples today”: that story “links the identities of indigenous and settler peoples as opposed characters in a modern narrative about lost authenticity,” a story “about indigenous being and settler becoming, indigenous stasis and settler dynamism” (3).
“One of the key tasks of this book is to demonstrate how settler societies remain caught in these tragic colonial dynamics in the present,” Bell writes. “In powerful ways that we are largely unconscious of, the unhappy identities and relationships evident in Avatar shape the way settler and indigenous peoples think about their cultural identities as national and indigenous subjects today” (3). For Bell, issues of authenticity and culture “lie at the heart of these unhappy colonial identities and relationships”: authenticity, in the form of the Noble Savage imported from Enlightenment thinkers, has become “a figure of both desire and incompatible difference with settler modernity” (3). “Variations of this early figure of authenticity continue to plague settler accounts of and responses to indigenous assertions of identity”; in addition, settlers also want to be “authentic,” and so “authenticity is claimed, used and denied on both sides in the conflictual relations over land and belonging that operate between settlers and indigenous peoples” (3). “The connected themes of temporality and agency also riddle these conflictual relations,” Bell continues. “The logics of authenticity frequently position indigenous ways of being as the ontologies of another time, incompatible with modernity” (3-4). Indigenous ways are seen within modernity as traditions that are “appropriate for symbolic and ceremonial occasions, but not appropriate to the management of economic life, the organization of social relationships, or the practice of government” (4). Tradition is frozen in the past, rather than alive in the present (4).
“The other key task of the book is to explore identity strategies and ways of thinking about identities in relation that provide us with new stories, new ways of thinking about indigenous and settler identities, new forms of indigenous-settler relationship—strategies and concepts that seek to escape the tragedy and violence of the colonizing romance,” Bell states. “Perhaps an alternative end to the story is possible. There may be ways in which indigenous and settler peoples might co-exist differently, ways that avoid the problematic of the settler romance that ends with their conversion to indigeneity” (4). Bell is interested in the “range of identity strategies indigenous peoples engage in to assert agency over their fates, outside of settler leadership and control,” but in addition, “one of the arguments of this book is that settler peoples also need to change”:
The assertion of indigenous agency, or self-determination, calls for an affirming response from the non-indigenous population of settler societies. If colonial dynamics are relational, requiring both colonizing and colonized figures, new forms of both indigenous and settler subjects are necessary to break out of these colonial patterns. This book draws on the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas to identify changes in thinking about settler subjectivities and relations with indigenous peoples that can support the development of new possibilities in the narratives of settler societies. (4)
Bell acknowledges that her book is about identity politics, “about what and how identities are made to mean and the effects of their articulation,” and who articulates those identities in what contexts (4). “Ongoing settler propensities to define and delimit indigenous identities—to declare which are correct, to judge who is or isn’t a ‘real’ indigenous person—are crucial signs of the ongoing existence of colonial relationships,” she writes (4). So how can Bell, “as a settler subject, speak about indigenous identities? The book maps the discursive field of settler and indigenous identities, setting out a range of ways in which both are constructed and relate to each other,” and in doing so, she intends “to assess the political effects, the limitations and achievements, of specific constructions of indigenous identities (and settler identities), but with the aim of identifying the work of colonialism and resistances to it, rather than to identify the truth of indigenous identities” (4-5). For Bell, mobility and change “are the truth of all identities, the signs of their vitality,” and she wants “to defend and promote . . . relationships between settler and indigenous peoples that facilitate indigenous self-determination and self-representation,” and so the book ends “with a focus on the changes required on the part of settler subjects to minimize their propensity for judgement of indigeneity” (5).
One of Bell’s basic premises, she writes, “is that we are all significantly the products of our cultural and political histories,” and in the book she explores “some of the items of the colonial ‘inventory’—authenticity, modernity, universalism, the linear relationship of past, present and, liberalism—that are sedimented into settler ways of thinking, and looks at how they have contributed to shaping indigenous-settler relations” (5). Such ideas have had “a massive impact” on Indigenous peoples, and “[i]dentifying these traces of history is the first step to assessing them and determining what is worth holding on to and what is holding us back” (5). The Settlers’ belief in their superiority is the beginning of “[t]he tragedy of our colonial histories: superiority because of their religion, civilization, and skin colour (5). “Today, despite a degree of widespread acceptance of cultural difference, it is the mix of ideas associated with the civilization/primitivism binary that are the most tenacious in maintaining colonial relations and that will be the central focus of this investigation,” she continues. “Constructions of race will constitute a minor theme only. The civilization/primitivism binary highlights the problematics of authenticity that continue to vex the constitution of settler nationhood” (5-6).
People sometimes challenge Bell over her use of the word “settler” to refer to contemporary white Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians, and Americans. Some argue that “the settlers are historical figures and this term is not applicable today” (6). Others feel that “it is too benign a term, disguising the harsh violence of colonial invasions of indigenous homelands” (6). Her response to the first point is to quote Patrick Wolfe’s contention that colonization “is a structure, not an event” (qtd. 6). “Structurally, present-day white New Zealanders, Americans, Australians and Canadians occupy the positions in our societies that were created by the labour of the early settlers,” she continues (6)—and, of course, not just labour, but theft of land and displacement of Indigenous inhabitants. “We still constitute the dominant culture of our societies, and our political and economic institutions are largely governed by people like us,” she writes. “And this is the case whether or not we are actually descended from early settlers or our families arrived much more recently” (6). That comment suggests a question: why does Bell consider only white Canadians (for example) to be Settlers? Are racialized people not also living on Indigenous land? I realize that is complicated—as Black Lives Matters protests across Canada have demonstrated, Canadians of African origin do not govern this country’s political and economic institutions—and yet if whites who arrived recently are also Settlers, isn’t anyone who has come here an inheritor of the history of settlement and the structure of invasion that constitutes colonialism?
“This ‘we’ that I am invoking here is a flexible and open category,” Bell continues. “Who ‘occupies’ the position of ‘settler’ and to what degree is a shifting and mutable issue” (6). She cites the work of Ghassan Hage on white Australian national identity, who “argues that national belonging is a form of symbolic capital that can be accumulated,” and that it is “a matter of knowledge, practice and position rather than intrinsic being” (6). For that reason, what Hage calls “Third World-looking people” “can accumulate a degree of settler national capital and national belonging,” in part through “the adoption of particular discursive positions in relation to indigenous peoples or more recent or racially/culturally distinct immigrants” (6-7). In addition, Hage argues that “all non-indigenous citizens within settler societies are implicated in the colonial dynamics of those societies” (7). “While there are differential positions of power in the national field, there are no positions of innocence,” Bell writes. “At the most basic level, all whose families arrived after colonial settlement occupy a position in a set of social structures created by that settlement. It is this sense of the complicity of all of us with colonialism that motivates me to explore the politics of contemporary settler and indigenous engagements” (7). Of course, those who arrived in a colonizing society unwillingly—as enslaved people, for instance—or who are racialized and therefore structurally disadvantaged by the dominant group, might disagree with Bell on this question. It is, as she suggests, complicated and “mutable.”
“The other criticism is that ‘settler’ is a term that itself hides the violence of colonization,” Bell continues. “From this perspective it is more accurate and honest to use ‘colonizer,’ or ‘invader’ as is often used in Australia in particular” (7). However, for Bell the term “settler” “specifies, as it hides, the particular forms of violence—physical, legal, epistemological, symbolic—inflicted on indigenous people in this form of colonial relationship” (7). “Settler,” she writes, “most precisely identifies the form of colonization under discussion” (7). “What distinguishes settler colonialism from other forms is that it was driven by desire for the land itself,” she notes. “Settlers are a particular kind of colonizer, those who seek to make a new home on the lands of others,” and “this primary desire for indigenous land as a settler homeland sets up a particular relationship between settlers and indigenous peoples, one in which the settler seeks to replace the indigenous as the people of the land, to become indigenous themselves” (7). Indigenous peoples must disappear, literally or symbolically, or Indigenous peoples must merge with Settlers—and for some, those two things amount to the same thing (7). “Thus, claims to place and valuations of (both indigenous and settler) morality and worth are complexly interwoven in these settler strategies, providing a rich field for analysis within settler cultural forms,” Bell writes. “The politics of authenticity are crucially bound up with these struggles for belonging and right, the discourse of nationalism requiring that only one people can be the authentic (and sovereign) people of the nation-state” (7).
However, despite the desire of Settlers that Indigenous peoples disappear in one way or the other, Indigenous peoples in Settler societies are making a comeback—“demographically, culturally, politically, economically, morally”—and Bell locates her book at that particular historical juncture, “in which the morality of the settler project has been subject to renewed challenges form indigenous communities for justice and self-determination” (7-8). While one response to this comeback is new variations of the old strategies of forcing Indigenous people to disappear, “there are also exciting moves to establish new, respectful relationships with indigenous peoples, relations founded on acknowledgement of indigenous difference, equality and autonomy” (8). Bell writes this book to encourage other Settlers to see the comeback as an opportunity, rather than a threat (8).
Bell notes that the term “indigenous” also needs clarification. It is often used in “two quite distinct if overlapping ways”: in one sense, “to be an indigenous person can purely mean to be ‘native’ to a place, in the sense of someone who was born there, rather than an immigrant,” which would make many Settlers indigenous (8). I doubt that’s the way Bell uses the term. On the other hand, “indigeneity can be used to refer to the particular status of peoples who occupied a territory at the time of colonization and who remain historical, often tribally articulated, connections to place” (8). That is how Bell will use the term, the way it is used in the United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That use of “indigenous” carries three meanings at the same time: Indigenous people have a “temporal priority” over others living in a place, they have a “specific sense of identity and belonging,” and their status “is linked to the experience of colonization” (9). “These three meanings point to two ‘sources’ of indigenous identity,” Bell continues, citing Francesca Merlan’s categories, the “criterial” and the “relational”—which, she suggests, also apply to Settlers (9). Indigeneity “is defined in (colonial) relation to the settler people,” she suggests; that is the “relational category,” and the term “settler” “invokes a specific location and role within the colonial relation” (9). Paraphrasing Stuart Hall, she suggests that the “specificity of settler peoples points to the limitations of any universalized understanding of colonization involving only two distinct groups, ‘the West and the Rest’” (9). Settlers were both agents of power in the colony and colonial subjects themselves, “at a remove from the culture and power of the imperial centre, and subject also to that power, if in exponentially different forms from those experienced by indigenous peoples” (9). “But the other side of this colonial relationality has not disappeared,” she notes. “Settler peoples are still located in specific colonial relations to indigenous peoples and remain vexed by their own origins as colonials and migrants” (9-10). Settler nationalisms bear the traces of these “doubled and dilemmatic histories,” which “bear the historic concern for political and cultural distinction from the mother country and the ongoing concern with how to incorporate the relationship to indigeneity in settler identities” (10).
“At the same time, neither settler nor indigenous peoples are reducible to the colonial relation,” Bell writes. “Both have prior histories and bring bodies of philosophy, law, values and practices with them to that relationship” (10). For that reason, they can be defined in relation “to particular ‘criteria’ or ‘content’” (10). The identities of Settlers and of Indigenous peoples are not reducible to a relation (10). In particular, indigenous peoples “have their own autonomous sources of law, values and practices that survive and continue to enliven their identities and ways of live,” and which “continue to animate their claims to their homelands” (10). Against those claims, “the settler imaginary seeks to reduce indigenous identities to its own terms” (10). At the same time, Settlers “cannot be fully accounted for by their position within the colonial relation,” since they too “bring prior histories, philosophies, legal systems, values and practices to the colonial encounter” (10). One of Bell’s basic assumptions is that the Settler peoples of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S. all share “a ‘criterial’ commonality that can be traced back to the originary influence on them of the British legal and cultural traditions and the European philosophical traditions they brought with them to their ‘new worlds’” (11). Those traditions shaped the identity of those nations, as well as “their projections of indigenous identities and relations with their developing nation-states” (11).
One of Bell’s key arguments, she writes, “is that the settler peoples of Australasia and North America share a ‘settler imaginary’—the set of ideas and values that underpin a peculiarly settler discourse of nationhood, identity and indigenous-settler relations” (11). In developing this term, she draws on philosopher Charles Taylor’s notion of “social imaginaries.” A social imaginary provides “an implicit ‘background’” that grants people—Settlers, in this case—a common understanding and a sense of legitimacy about their society’s “form, practices, and social relations” (11). The social imaginary also creates a sense of legitimacy “about the form, practices and social relations of a particular society” that is shared among its members (11). Social imaginaries can change over time, as new ideas penetrate and transform them, and that leads people to take up (or be inducted into) new practices (11). According to Bell, we are living in a moment when new ideas are changing our social imaginary: “the settler imaginary that developed in the experience and practice of establishing colonial relations with indigenous peoples—and necessary to the continuation of those relations—is in a process of transformation” (12). The challenges to the Settler imaginary posed by Indigenous rights movements is the reason, according to Bell, because they are leading to responses “via a range of policies of recognition of indigenous land, and of resource and cultural rights. These policies both concede rights and resources to indigenous communities and work to contain the challenges indigenous being presents to the ideas of universality, such as ‘one law for all,’ that are engrained in the settler imaginary” (12). But as those communities are empowered by such changes, they further challenge the settler imaginary:
Settler assumptions about the nature of their societies . . . are coming up against new assertions of indigenous property rights and political and cultural projects that unsettle these understandings. Effectively a new theory of indigenous sovereignty is percolating its way into community life, empowering indigenous individuals and communities to act in new ways, to institute new social relations with their neighbours. (12)
The response of Settlers “is mixed and grudging,” but a transformation is nonetheless taking place in “their settled imaginary,” leading to new understandings and the possibility of “a relational imaginary” (12).
Bell’s book focuses on Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States—the so-called CANZUS countries—because they were the only nation-states to vote against the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. “While typically priding themselves on their global role as defenders of human rights, oddly these four nation-states found the Declaration was more than they could countenance,” she writes, noting that their shared rejection of the Declaration “points to shared sets of social relations and orientations” (13). “For these states, the relationship between culture and politics is at the heart of the problem of indigenous peoples’ rights,” she continues. “These our settler states are happy to recognize their indigenous communities as culturally distinctive, but have trouble with these communities’ claims to political distinction and distinct rights as indigenous peoples” (13). That’s because Indigenous nationhood “represents a challenge to settler nationhood, and indigenous rights to settler rights” (13). For that reason, this book will explore the relationship between cultural and policy in the trouble relationships between Settlers and Indigenous peoples (13).
Bell’s interest is in the “specifically colonizing/settler imaginary” in these societies, which is “shaped by the broader influence of European thought more widely shared than in Britain alone,” despite their historical antecedents in the United Kingdom (14). She cites Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s use of the term “worlding” to “describe the joint processes of destruction and substitution by which colonists set out to transform the indigenous worlds they entered (‘new’ only to them) into their visions of a better version of the societies they had left” (14). Plants and animals were transplanted to make the “new and alien world” more like home. “Effectively, settler colonization is a project of creating a new world, rather than a project based on the finding of one, she writes,” citing Nicholas Thomas’s argument that colonization is a creative project (14). Colonization is transformative, making new societies and identities through projects that are both discursive and material, “propelled by aims and intentions and underpinned by ‘a particular imagination’ of the colonial situation” (14). It is an exercise in self-fashioning (14). “The settler imaginary is crucial to the project of making both indigenous and settler peoples as colonial projects,” she continues (14). In addition, colonial projects are often not realized, and their impact falls short of their desired aims “in the fact of their own overreach and internal contradictions,” along with “the counter-projects of others, including those of indigenous communities” (14-15). Colonialism isn’t something located in the past, but it “continues to inflect the present” (15). “The idea that the CANZUS societies are engaged in an ongoing—incomplete, contested, hopefully diminishing—colonial project is one of the key claims of this book,” she states (15).
Bell goes on to defend her use of colonial discourse analysis as a methodology against charges that it “over-generalises, ignores indigenous agency and over-emphasises binary oppositions between colonizer and colonized” (15). Her comparative approach, she contends, “allows us to identify common discursive resources and strategies that have often been deployed in similar ways and at similar times” (15-16). At the same time, she suggests that she has remained attentive to differences between these societies (16). But, at another level, she notes that focusing on “the analysis of structural locations within discourse—points of identity, of settler and indigene as figures constructed within discourse” (16) risks other kinds of generalizations:
I am interested in the logics by which these discursive categories operate, and the ways they mark structural positions within a field of social relations. Actual indigenous and settler individuals are distributed more widely,, identifying with, deploying, crossing, and resisting these categories from day to day and context to context, and are further divided and joined by gender, class, age, sexuality, and so on—no one is “purely” an indigenous or settler subject. When we analyse examples of discourse that construct settler and/or indigenous identities in particular ways, we are looking at the work of these individual or collective human agents, but never capturing these agents themselves in their totality. They have “moved on,” leaving these discursive traces of moments of their struggles with categories of identity. (16)
That limitation does not necessarily discredit discourse analysis, Bell argues, because “the discursive formations under study, while they do not entirely capture human agents, do powerfully shape our imaginations, understandings and possibilities” (16). Discourse analysis does not exclude human agency, according to Bell. “As agents, individuals make use of and position themselves in relation to discourses,” she writes. “At the same time, within discourse, subjects are positioned and these positions are granted varying degrees of legitimacy and agency. . . . The issue of agency is a central concern in this work and the agency of indigenous individuals and collectives in constructing their own identities and actively resisting the subjection of colonial discourse is a key theme” (16).
Bell acknowledges that colonial discourse analysis focuses on binaries and tends “to cast settler and indigene in opposition to each other and to abstract these categories out from the cross-cutting complexities of gender, social class and so on,” an abstraction of which this book is guilty, she admits (16-17). However, “oppositionalism in the construction of settler and indigenous identities is the very problem this work addresses, particularly oppositionalism around issues of authenticity” (17). In addition, the later sections of the book “deal with attempts to overcome the imposition of colonial binaries” (17). I got that reaction from an audience member when I gave a paper on settler colonialism in Guanajuato, Mexico, last October; a woman—a fellow Canadian—wanted to know when we could stop defining ourselves in opposition to each other. Nevertheless, Bell continues, “the ‘solution’ to the problematic binaries explored in this book is not unity/uniformity. The problem with binaries is not the existence of difference per se, but the hierarchical valuation of difference and the either/or assumptions involved” (17). For instance, the denial of Indigenous modernities and of the value of traditional Indigenous life ways both position the Indigenous “as ‘out of place’ and ‘out of time’ in the modern settler state” (17). “Overcoming colonial binaries requires overcoming the problematic demand for unity/singularity, the demand that there is only one way to be modern and only one way to belong to these settler nation-states,” Bell suggests (17). However “developing a theory of coevalness is not a simple task,” she continues, citing Johannes Fabian, because the temptation to see “‘the time of the other’ as in the past—and to see present time as singular, unitary, the time of modernity—is deeply engrained in western modes of thought. The resulting ‘absence of the Other from our Time’ means that indigenous people appear in western discourses ‘as an object and a victim’” (Fabian qtd. 17). The solution is to abandon the idea of the unity of time; that way, coevalness would become “the experience of the co-existence of indigenous and settler Time” (17).
The next chapter, “Indigenous Authenticity and Settler Nationalisms,” begins with the Settler expectation that Indigenous peoples will be traditional whereas Settlers themselves will be modern, a “discourse of indigenous authenticity that is foundational to the settler imaginary” (25). “Settler nationalisms and their ambivalent relations with indigenous peoples were shaped by modern understandings of peoplehood and identity and the dilemmas of authenticity that modernity brought with it,” Bell writes. “Authenticity became a problem–and the site of desire—in modernity. It became entangled with ideas of primitivism and projected onto indigenous peoples. It is also a concept complexly located in relation to concepts of time and place—one that powerfully locates peoples as ‘in’ or ‘out’ of time and ‘in’ or ‘out’ of place” (25-26). Identity became a problem in modernity, as people became more mobile and their identities were no longer fixed. As identity became a problem, so too did authenticity: “what constituted an authentic, or genuine, identity and what inauthentic? How was the new, modern individual to ground their identity in the flux of this new era of change?” (26). “The dynamism of modern society made inauthenticity possible, as disembedded individuals could fashion and re-fashion their identities to suit their circumstance,” Bell continues. “This general problematic of authenticity takes particular, pernicious and intractable forms in settler societies” (26). That is because, for Indigenous peoples, authenticity became “a problem projected on to them” by the modern imaginaries of Settlers (26). “The importance of this point cannot be overstated—authenticity is not a property of indigenous cultures, but a value attributed to them out of the concerns of European modernity,” Bell insists. For modern Europeans—after the eighteenth century, that is—Indigenous cultures and peoples “represented an earlier, primitive human state through which their own societies had already passed on their way to civilization” (26). Because authenticity had not been a problem in the past, the logic goes, and because Indigenous peoples are part of the past through which Europe has already moved, then Indigenous peoples are authentic (26). “According to this way of thinking, authenticity was a characteristic of the past, a mode of being that only survived in modernity as a hangover of a lost age,” Bell writes. “Authenticity was projected onto indigenous cultures at the very moment it was under threat in the maelstrom of change brought on by colonial contact. Indigenous authenticity then was both the object of desire and at risk, and very much a means to imagine modern/western as well as indigenous identities” (26-27).
The problems of authenticity were connected to ideas about place, particularly during the Romantic period, when “national cultures came to be understood as arising organically over time from the relationship between people and place,” and the “authentic people of a place were those who ‘belonged’ there, those whose place it was, those who had effectively arisen from its soil” (27). There would be room for only one such people in each place (27). In the new Settler societies, “the problems of authentic peoplehood and the relationship between people and place” became an important issue (27). For Bell, “modernity was the era of the dominance of white/European societies and all other ways of life were seen as both inferior and anterior—of lesser value and belonging to an earlier era of human history” (27). However, “at the same time that the supposed superiority of European modernity provided justifications for colonization, imaginings of authenticity and peoplehood created irresolvable dilemmas for the colonizing settlers,” because they were moving away from their authentic place and taking over the homelands of others (27). “By the logics of authenticity, the settlers were themselves double inauthentic—bothy modern and out of place—while indigenous peoples were cast as the site of this desired authenticity—both primitive and the people of the land” (27). Bell argues that the ideas of authenticity, primitivism, and essentialist notions of cultural identity “continue to haunt the construction of indigenous and settler identities and their relations,” and this chapter examines both “settler imaginings of nationhood in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries,” in which Indigenous peoples were believed to be both passing away (disappearing) and passing on the mantle of authenticity to Settlers, and the “new strategies of appropriation” that worked “to underpin the settlers’ claim to indigenous authenticity” and belonging (27-28).
“The concept of authenticity has always been freighted with valuations of originality and truth,” Bell writes, so it’s not surprise that authenticity “has had such a powerful place in the identity politics played out between settler and indigenous peoples” (28). Being authentic “can be a matter of being oneself, of being true to what one already is in effect, or a matter of becoming, a process of discovery and ‘self-realization’ through an individual’s life course” (28). The idea of authenticity “as already determined, existing in some fixed, core quality of characteristic of being, is a form of essentialism,” and that essentialist idea “is most pervasive and has been most powerful in the history of indigenous-settler relations” (28). Authenticity is always valuable and desired, and this “positive valuation” is just one way that Settlers “have accounted for the difference of indigenous peoples and cultures” (28). The opposite of authenticity is the inauthentic, “the debased and degraded,” which means “the ‘originality’ projected onto indigenous peoples has been simultaneously viewed as a state of purity and innocence and as one of brutishness, these paradoxical valuations co-existing and co-dependent, each being drawn on as required to serve the political ends of the moment” (28-29). The ideas of originality as authentic, and its shadow, are both “central to the dilemmatic orientation of the settler to the indigene” (29).
Nineteenth-century Romantics reacted against the Enlightenment’s optimism about change, and thus they sought authenticity in tradition and in the past; in this way, “the search for authenticity became intertwined with already existing primitivist thought, which viewed New World peoples as living relics of the human past” (29). “The primitivism projected onto New World peoples was viewed in both positive and negative terms,” Bell writes. “They were simultaneously Noble and Ignoble Savages” (29). They were both authentic (according to the Romantics) while also representing “an earlier state of human development” (29). “Contact with the modern world was inevitably corrupting” for Indigenous peoples, and it always “meant a loss of authenticity” (29). For that reason, “[t]he authentic Savage . . . was always already the object of nostalgia, ‘passing away’ in the face of civilization as soon as contact was made” (29). Bell notes that the Romantics also saw European peasant cultures—the Folk—as more authentic, closer to nature, and more true than city dwellers (29-30). “To serve as the cultural source for the nation (the main function of this variation of primitivist authenticity) the Folk had to adhere to their traditions, while the urban bourgeoisie were free to develop theirs from that cultural base,” Bell contends. “In other words, the idea of an original authenticity as source for some depended on it being a ‘prison’ for others” (30). This idea depended “on the translation of distance into time”: since the Folk lived away from the city, in the countryside, they were far from modernity (30). “In settler nationalisms . . . the Noble Savage and the Folk come together and indigenous peoples become caught up in these logics of traditionalism, purity and temporal and spatial incarceration,” Bell suggests (30).
“Authenticity was (and is) always about modernity and its discontents,” including the methods that are used in looking for it (30). The Romantics, whom Bell describes as “the ethnologists and folklorists of their day,” collected the songs and poetry of the peasantry and of Indigenous peoples and then cleaned them up, restoring them to what they believed to be their original forms (30). “Thus, even geographical incarceration on reservations, reserves or untouched hinterlands could not guarantee indigenous or peasant cultural purity,” she states, “and the modern European elite set themselves up as the arbiters of the authenticity of others” (30). The idea of primitive authenticity became “a standard against which to critique the inauthenticity of modernity” and at the same time “a source of authenticity with which to replenish modernity’s losses” (31). This logic is present in New Age movements, which identify Indigenous cultures as an authentic standard against which to critique “a debased modernity” (31). In addition, peasant authenticity “served as a cultural source for the development of European national cultures” (31). In the Settler context, though, these functions take on different forms. “In the early stages of development of the settler nation-states in particular, the primitivized indigene as external other served as a foil to the modernity of the settler society,” Bell writes, a move that celebrated rather than (as in the European homeland) critiqued modernity (31). “In asserting their modernity the settlers sought to demonstrate their standing in relation to Europe and to justify colonization as bringing civilization to the savages, a process seen as sometimes regrettable, but as both inevitable and progressive,” she continues (31). However, once the frontier closed, “the identity of the new settler society became an issue,” and Settlers used the Noble Savage stereotype to provide “the authenticity that could serve as the resource for the construction of settler nationhood” by “constructing narratives in which the ‘passing away’ of the Noble Savage involved the ‘passing on’ of their patrimony and heritage” (31). In that way, “settler mythology internalized indigenous authenticity,” in a way that is distinct from the European context, because “in settler societies it is another people’s cultural traditions that are appropriated, involving complex strategies of denial and justification to claim them as the settlers’ own” (31-32). At the same time, Settlers also seek “the restoration of a lost innocence,” and “[i]ndigenous authenticity is deployed to secure settler redemption from the role of colonizer” (32). These two functions—appropriation and redemption—“remain apparent in contemporary constructions and appropriations of indigenous authenticity across the CANZUS societies” (32).
Next, Bell summarizes the development of nationalist sentiment, or a concern with national identity, in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S. In each case, “the early development of settler nationalism involved the romantic construction of the indigenous people as primitive,” and because primitivism and civilization are incompatible, Indigenous peoples “were seen to be ‘passing away’ or ‘vanishing’ before the march of civility,” an idea that was “a mix of reality, romance and race” (33). “Disease, war and displacement resulted in major declines in indigenous populations throughout these societies, making the eventual disappearance of indigenous peoples seem a likely reality, not just a colonial desire,” Bell notes (33). However, her point is “the way in which primitivism and race theory provided explanations for this seeming disappearance . . . worked to absolve the colonizers of responsibility and was incorporated as an origin story in settler identity narratives” (33). Settlers were therefore innocent of the consequences of colonization (33). In addition, “[a]s indigenous peoples ‘passed away,’ so too they ‘passed on’ their patrimony to the settlers, frequently via the imagining of a familial connection” (33). I wonder if Bell is referring to the common notion in southwestern Ontario, where I grew up, that there is a Mohawk grandmother somewhere in the family tree.
From here, Bell moves to specific examples from the countries she is discussing. For reasons of time (there is never enough), I decided to focus on what she has to say about Canada. “Settler identity in Canada was from the outset defined in contrast to that of the USA,” she begins. “In emphasizing their Britishness in the early years of the Confederation, Anglo-Canadian settlers deemed themselves superior to both Americans and French Canadians. Key to these constructions was the idea of Canada as the ‘true north’ and the positioning of Native Canadians in the nationalist narrative” (36). In the rhetoric of the Canada First Movement, “the north was seen in environmentalist and racial terms as foundational to white Canadian character, the site for the construction of superior, masculine virtues, in contrast to the immorality of the south/USA” (36). The north was seen as timeless and outside of history, and this idea is closely associated “with indigenous authenticity” (36). The relationship between Indigenous peoples and Settlers is tied to the development of what Eva Mackey calls “‘the benevolent Mountie myth,” in which “the North-West Mounted Police paved the way for white settlement in the Canadian west with minimal force and with the superior morality of British justice” (36-37). In this story, Indigenous peoples are “Ignoble Savages, wild and violent—and made worse by contact with less virtuous white men,” usually Americans (37). “This narrative worked both to distinguish Canadians from Americans and as a redemptive narrative for white Canadians, their presence justified by the construction of a paternalistic relation to the indigenous peoples,” Bell suggests (37). Meanwhile, Indigenous peoples remained “caught within the discourse of primitivism—first the wild Savage, then the Savage as the child of mankind, on the path to civilization,” and “the Savage in the Mountie myth works to legitimate the white settler presence,” particularly by their gratitude for “the settler presence and the peace and justice that they brought,” which is compared to the violence of the U.S. frontier (37). She suggests that Charles Mair’s 1886 play Tecumseh suggests the Noble Savage “endorsing the settler presence” and the replacement of the Indigenous people by Settlers (37).
“In the ‘benevolent Mountie myth’ and in Tecumseh, all three strands of English Canadian nationalism are brought together,” Bell writes. “The Mountie stands for the best of the British heritage, guiding the child-like Natives to civilization, in contrast to the malevolent Americans. In Tecumseh, both the Shawnee chief and the British General are noble figures, providing the new nation with a combination of Canadian authenticity and British political traditions” (37-38). These “nationalist mythologies provide origin stories, carving out a space of moral virtue to the new nation in contrast to its British and indigenous antecedents and its large, and resented, neighbour” (38). Bell’s other example is the painting of Emily Carr, in which Indigenous peoples are both “Vanishing Canadians” and “First Canadians,” “providing the mythic origins and cultural heritage on which the culture of the modern settler nation could be built” (38). Of course, this is all too brief and simple, and three examples (one without concrete textual evidence) are insufficient, but it rings true nonetheless.
“The appropriation of indigenous symbolism in the service of settler national identities has waxed and waned since the early era of settler nationalisms,” Bell writes (42). However, the extent to which Settler “strategies of appropriation” have changed since the 1960s, when Indigenous rights movements began challenging Settlers “to face up to their colonial history and to rethink their relationships with indigenous peoples,” is arguable (42). “While no longer the ‘dying savage,’ the authentic/inauthentic binary works to divide and discipline indigenous identities in the present,” she contends. “At the same time, indigenous peoples are now firmly narrativized as the (settler) nations’ ‘First Peoples’ in the contemporary version of the familial ‘passing on’ metaphors of the earlier era” (43). She notes that the use of Indigenous language and symbolism is “particularly apparent in national branding and marketing,” especially in sports and tourism (43). Such appropriations remove Indigenous artefacts and symbolism from their “specific histories and cultural identifications” and instead they come “to stand in for an abstracted authentic national indigeneity” (43). One of her main examples is the appropriation of the inukshuk in Canada (43-44). “At one level these examples of the incorporation of indigenous symbolism within settler national imaginaries can be taken as a sign of an inclusive cultural pluralism, although it has to also be acknowledged that . . . some indigenous peoples insist on their separation from the settler nation,” Bell continues. More broadly, though, these examples “point to the way in which the practices of inclusion of indigenous symbolism can represent settler over indigenous interests and can be accomplished on settler terms, not in partnership between peoples” (47). “[T]hrough a range of disembedding and appropriative strategies, settler narratives and practices of identity construction have sought to separate the markers of authenticity from indigenous bodies and communities and to make them their own,” she states, noting that “such possession is never finally secured” because the gap “between settler and indigeneity” can never be entirely closed (47).
“Settler appropriations of indigenous cultural authenticity rely on the continual production of that authenticity, and—most destructively for indigenous communities—its Other, indigenous inauthenticity,” Bell continues. “While authenticity remains constructed in terms of purity, originality and unsullied traditionalism—settler modernity’s Other—contemporary indigenous culture remains at risk of denigration as not ‘real’ indigenous culture” (48). I thought Settlers had moved beyond that idea, given the success of contemporary Indigenous musicians (A Tribe Called Red, Tanya Talaga, William Prince), to give one example, but perhaps not. Indigenous authenticity depends on spatial separation—Indigenous peoples need to be somewhere other than in cities—and when “they become urban, indigenous people are expected to be either ‘just like us,’ or are seen as problematic troublemakers and welfare recipients” (48). Bell cites Patrick Wolfe’s notion of “repressive authenticity”—part of the Settler “logic of elimination”—which “‘seeks to replace indigenous society with that imported by the colonizers.’ Authentic indigeneity is constructed as a ‘pristine essence’”—one “that most actual indigenous individuals cannot embody” (qtd. 48). Thus, she continues, “while producing and appropriating authentic indigeneity to serve settler identity projects, repressive authenticity also involves ‘the positive production of genetic or cultural inauthenticity,’” and through assimilation and intermarriage, actual Indigenous people disappear “while the disembedded signifiers of indigenous authenticity remain to serve the settler nation” (48).
According to Bell, Wolfe’s distinction between genetic and cultural inauthenticity is important. “The authentic indigene imported into settler nationalism represents cultural authenticity via the symbolism of tradition, the cultural wellspring for the migrant settler identity,” she writes. “Genetic tradition, on the other hand, is constructed in the language of race, blood and descent” (48). The point about cultural inauthenticity, though, is that “repressive authenticity works as a set of divide-and-rule strategies to simultaneously produce and discredit ‘inauthentic’ indigenes,” while Settler society appropriates “a disembedded indigenous cultural authenticity” (48). Bell cites critics of Wolfe, such as Elizabeth Povinelli, who “rightly points out that the elimination of the indigene is ‘always deferred’ because of the necessary role indigeneity plays in securing the identity of the white settler subject” (49). The figure of “the indigene” is both desired and rejected by Settlers, and for that reason “the final ‘death’ of indigeneity never comes, but the logics of authenticity remain a powerful means to police and discipline indigenous identities” (49). Thus Wolfe’s “logic of elimination” has a necessary limit, although “the repressive and divisive dynamics” he identifies operate in the four Settler societies Bell is considering. For instance, notions of cultural inauthenticity are “used to discredit activists and rights claimants,” because according to “the logics of primitivism,” Indigenous peoples cannot be traditional and contemporary (50). Nor can they or their cultures be dynamic: “traditions must be invariant and fixed, the same today as in the past” (50). While academics accept the dynamic nature of all cultures, “the opposition between modern and primitive cultures, between dynamic and static cultures, continues to circulate in the public arena,” Bell states (51).
In the chapter’s final section, Bell suggests that indigenous authenticity “has proven a vexed identity strategy for both settlers and indigenous peoples,” although “it remains a potent and alluring ideal that troubles both indigenous and settler identities and the relationships between them” (54). Settlers never become indigenous; they are always in a state of becoming, and the closest they get at arriving at their goal is through their “anxious repetitions” (54). “Beyond such assertions the settler remains prone to ontological uncertainty about their identity,” Bell states (54). In addition, “the politics of settler identification with indigenous culture and tradition is a direct follow-on from the romantic primitivism that was an integral component of the initial justification for colonization” (55). Romanticism gave the colonial project “an ambivalent ground,” because it valued something destined to “pass away,” but since Indigenous peoples remain 200 years after predictions of their demise began, the “ending of the romantic settler tale has thus had to be revised” (55). Now it’s the Avatar story, in which a white man saves Indigenous people and, in the end, becomes Indigenous himself (55). However, for Indigenous peoples, “claims to authenticity do have clear positive dimensions, providing a crucial cultural space form which to claim ownership of their self-representation and from which they can speak. Indigenous peoples are the guardians of their own authenticity, the logics of purity and originality offering ready grounds for excluding and discounting settler claims to speak in their name” (55). In that way, “the logic of authenticity provides a ground for the exercise of indigenous agency and resistance, and a point of stability within the violence and oppression of the colonial relation” (56). In addition, “to speak in the voice of authenticity is to speak in a voice that the colonizer recognizes as indigenous and hence one that is more likely to be ‘heard’” (56). However, authenticity has drawbacks, especially for Indigenous political projects, because it plays into “repressive authenticity,” and because such claims to authenticity “remain on the ontological terrain of the settler imaginary,” where Indigenous people are expected to perform “authentic indigeneity” (56). It is also subject to theoretical critique from post-structuralists and postmodernists, although Bell suggests that the west abandoned essentialism “just as indigenous people were finally beginning to make use of it to serve their own political resistance” (56). She suggests that one response to those theoretical developments is “strategic essentialism,” while another is to point towards the multiple meanings of “authenticity” (57). Authenticity, she suggests, “has more than one guise,” and it can be understood as either being or becoming (57). She cites the work of David Moore, who suggests that in the work of Indigenous writers and philosophers, “native authenticity . . . is dynamic, a matter of translating the contemporary experience of living native lives in twenty-first-century America in written form” (57). “Those native lives are modern and American and continue to draw on distinct, indigenous epistemological/cultural resources, pointing to the fact that there is something indigenous that remains ‘outside’ the incarceration of colonial ontologies and epistemologies,” she suggests (57).
Bell’s third chapter, “Hybrid Identities and the ‘One-way Street’ of Assimilation,” begins by stating, “The most remarkable, but frequently taken-for-granted, feature of the politics of hybridity is settler societies is that hybridity is an indigenous ‘problem’ only. Like race—and for related, highly racialized reasons—hybridity is not a problem for the settler” (58). That’s because, despite the “many sources of hybridity within the settler population (mixed descent and histories of migration and of culture contact with indigenous and other peoples) . . . white settler identities have become sponges that can typically absorb any amount of cultural difference” (58). Not only is hybridity not a problem for Settlers, but “‘properly diluted’ indigenous blood actually works to ‘enhance, ennoble, naturalize and legitimate’ white settler identity” by grounding and legitimizing it,” Bell suggests, citing Strong and Van Winkle (58)—the Mohawk grandmother mythology so common where I grew up. “In contrast, being of mixed descent, or being anything other than ‘pure’ and ‘authentic’ . . . has persistently been a problem for indigenous peoples across these settler societies,” Bell writes, noting that “cultural hybridity has been integrally linked with various strategies of assimilation instituted on the part of settler governments” (58-59). For Bell, “the history of hybridity in the settler imaginary is one that problematizes claims to indigenous identities while representing the success of assimilation and adding a touch of exoticism when linked to claims to settler identities” (59).
The focus of this chapter, according to Bell, is “how the tension between purity and mixture is straddled by indigenous peoples in particular,” and the central concept, hybridity, is used “to categorize mixed identities” (59). She notes that state-sponsored assimilation strategies took place in the 19th and 20th centuries, and that those policies “formed the backdrop to the resistance movements of the 1960s and 1970s as the young, urban and educated generation reacted against the assimilation mindsets forced onto their parents’ generation, and against the racism of their environments, to re-assert their identities and reclaim their cultural difference as indigenous peoples” (59). Despite the promise of equality inherent in western liberalism, people who were not white, or who could not pass as white, “continued to be subjected to racist and exclusionary practices” (59).
Hybridity, Bell notes, is usually the solution to “the problematics of essentialism” in identity theory literature (60). The argument, she continues, is
that no culture is “pure” and no identity self-originating. Rather than seek territorial rootedness we must remember our histories of migration. Rather than assert “racial” and cultural purity, we must acknowledge our mixed ancestry and cultural syncretism. Rather than hybridity being conceived of as a problem, threatening a loss of identity, the answer is to embrace and celebrate the hybrid nature of all identities. (60)
However, this “positive politics of hybridity has always been shadowed by a suspicion of ‘mixture’ and a valuation of ‘purity’” (60). “Within the context of indigenous-settler histories of forcible assimilation and miscegenation, these negative connotations of hybridity have had particular salience and their legacy is apparent in the issues discussed in this chapter,” she continues (60).
The idea of hybridity comes from the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, Bell argues, but her own notion of hybridity focuses on “various themes of resistance and combination, maintenance of difference and fusion, and the element of choice evident in Bakhtin’s references to intention and conscious mixing” (61). Forms of hybridity as a mixture, for Bell, are “ontological hybridities” because “they involve the mixing of ‘substances,’ elements, forms of being—biological elements characterized in terms of ‘race,’ descent, ancestry on the one hand, and cultural elements, arising out of culture contact and migrations on the other” (61). “It is the existence of more than one racial or cultural element that provides the (limited) option to assert a hybrid identity,” Bell writes:
The individual of “mixed” origins has a choice of identifications within the strict limits of the ontological “substances” of their parentage and cultural milieu. Ontological hybridities then reflect constructionist theories of identity in two senses: they point to the historical processes by which identities come into being out of prior origins, and they point to an element of human agency in constructing/choosing a particular identity. (61)
“While the historicized origin of ontological hybridities points to change over time, the development of a new identity label also represents a moment of stability,” she continues. “Out of processes of cultural mixture, hyphenated or doubled identities . . . or new ‘fused’ identity labels . . . are formed,” and these “foreground and maintain the distinctions between their origins, while with fused hybridities the distinct ‘parents’ of the new identity are less easy to trace” (61). Such hybridities are sometimes called “synthetic” or “syncretic” (61).
Before she moves on to discuss hybridity in connection to Indigenous identities, though, Bell explains how the idea of “race” figures in her argument. She writes, “it is now commonly accepted that there is no such thing as ‘race’ in a biological sense. Rather, ‘race’ is understood as a flexible socio-political concept of European/western origin used to categorize people in particular ways that work to support white dominance” (62). For Bell, the idea of “race” is “un/real”: “real in its effects because of the way that people believe in it and act on it,” but “scientifically ‘unreal’ in that it lacks empirical foundation” (62). “The metaphor of ‘blood’ is intimately linked with ‘race’ and ontological hybridities,” she continues. “‘Blood’ is construed in race discourse as a substance that can be mixed and diluted, that can be divided in fractional terms to precisely categorize descent,” and in that way it can be used to “weaken an individual’s claim to an identity” (62). “The result is crucial for the categorization of identity and group belonging, leading to individuals of mixed descent being categorized as caught between, neither one thing nor the other, or both/and, and, significantly, not ‘real’ (authentic) Indians/Māori/Aboriginals,” Bell writes (62). She suggests that it is useful to compare this way of thinking, which “has long since become societal commonsense throughout the CANZUS societies,” with alternatives, such as the Māori concept of whakapapa, which “works according to an opposite, inclusive rather than divisive, logic” (62). In Māori society, she explains, people look for common ancestors or close points of connection, and “if you share one ancestor, no matter how many generations ago, your whakapapa connects you” (62-63). The idea of whakapapa also “provides the basis for a claim to tribal belonging—one, rather than all, ancestors being the minimal requirement for a tribal identity” (63).
“Diverse links between ontological hybridities, indigeneity and assimilation are evident in the histories of the CANZUS states,” Bell continues. “In racial terms, individuals of mixed descent were viewed in contrary ways, sometimes as lost and adrift, belonging to neither settler nor indigenous worlds, and at other times as ‘half-way’ to ‘civilized’ and eminently civilizable” (63). They sometimes became the “targets of a number of assimilatory policies, locating them on one side or the other of the indigenous/settler binary as it suited the colonizing, assimilatory strategy” (63). In Canada, for example, under the 1876 Indian Act, “mixed-descent children of indigenous mothers . . . were excluded from band membership and recognition as status Indians” (63). “Indigenous peoples were also assimilated according to the logics of cultural hybridity,” she writes. (63). For instance, states pursued strategies of “individualizing land title to introduce the ‘civilized’ way of life via European-style farming and landholding,” as well as assimilative educational practices and removing Indigenous children from their families (64). “Beyond these links between hybridity and assimilation there are some key differences in the categorization of indigenous identities in the four settler states that are necessary to understand to make sense of the contemporary politics of hybridity,” Bell continues. In Canada, for instance, status Indians have government-issued cards “that validate their native identities and entitle them to various benefits and privileges,” even though they may not be recognized as members of specific First Nations, while non-status Indians “claim indigenous identities on the basis of descent and cultural identification, but . . . fall outside of government-imposed definitions” (64). Such policies have been divisive, leading to a situation where “the contemporary politics of hybridity is almost entirely dominated by struggles to be indigenous, struggles for recognition from tribes, bands and/or governments” (65). The existence of the Métis nation in Canada is another complexity, with some being recognized by the federal government, and others not (65).
However, Bell suggests, “the pressure continues for individuals of mixed descent to make an either/or identity choice—to be indigenous or to assimilate into the settler community,” and pressure to make that decision can come from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities and be exerted in either direction (68). It is rare for someone to claim “a doubled indigenous-settler identity,” she contends, although many people might reasonably do so (68). The notion of hybridity “encapsulates the experience of multiple identifications as well as the strategies of negotiation and points of tension that are involved in living between/across/within two (or more) cultural worlds” (68). She summarizes the ways that writers (in particular) identify themselves, but notes that people “who fit the phenotypical stereotypes of indigenous peoples are subject to racism and more broadly to the assumption that they are native, despite their legal or tribal status, or how they may self-identify” (72). “The message form the settler community is—as ever—mixed,” she notes. “On the one hand, indigenous people are exhorted to abandon their claims to a distinct identity and ‘join the mainstream community’; on the other, on the basis of appearance they are frequently denied equality and inclusion” (72). As a result, many “individuals of mixed descent” will “claim an indigenous identity as an act of resistance and positive affirmation of indigenous being, in addition to being an expression of their lived sense of self” (72). “One expression of resistance is the assertion of ‘wholeness’ and a singular indigenous identity, against any idea that they are made up of ‘parts’ and neither one thing nor the other,” Bell continues (72). Other people remain “committed to both sides” of their heritage (73). For still others, “a desired transition to an indigenous identity can be made difficult or impossible by the loss of connection with family and heritage” (74). Some who look white are challenged by other members of Indigenous communities, while others are encouraged to identify as Indigenous “as part of the political project of resisting and reversing the effects of assimilation” (75). Some communities are inclusive, and others maintain “strict, even essentialist, criteria for membership” (75-76). “Either way, it is clear that as a result of historic and contemporary assimilatory pressures, the maintenance of a clear demarcation between indigene and settler (wherever drawn) is crucial for the survival of distinct indigenous peoplehood,” Bell continues (76). She quotes Linda Tuhiwai Smith: “‘Fragmentation is not an indigenous project, it is something we are recovering from’” (qtd. 76-77).
Syncretic identities—the result of cultural contact between different Indigenous nations—are a form of “‘internal’ cultural dynamism” that is often not recognized (78). “From a political perspective, syncretic hybridities offer the means to construct a more inclusive identity,” Bell writes. “Rather than seek to ‘forget’ colonization by a turn to essence (as though colonization did not happen or did no harm, created no change), hybridity acts an important reminder of the colonial ‘break’ in the historical trajectory of identity” (78). She suggests that, along with Métis, “the identities of ‘Indian,’ ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Māori’ . . . must be remembered as colonial constructs, as categories that didn’t exist before contact with Europeans imposed these terms onto the diversity and complexity of indigenous cultures, tribes, clans, nations and language groups across the CANZUS states” (78). I would imagine that Métis people would take great offence at that claim. Nevertheless, because of the history of such collective terms, “some are suspicious of their value to contemporary indigenous peoples, for whom the connection to pre-colonial indigenous communities depends on categories from within their own cultural frameworks—family, skin, tribe, village, nation” (79). At the same time, she suggests that the counter-argument—“that pan-tribal concepts can unite diverse tribes around shared interests, particularly agains the forces of colonization”—is understandable (79). She notes that Indigenous thinkers and writers disagree about these ideas (79-80). However, even opponents of “pan-tribal concepts,” such as Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, do find “the generic labels” useful “to encompass shared tribal experience and positioning” (80). According to Bell,
The multiplicities that constitute Indian, Māori and Aboriginal identities are sites of struggle between those suspicious of the colonial origins of these pan-tribal terms and those who acknowledge their unifying power, between those who seek to order indigenous diversity in the name of a normative (“authentic”) definition and those who seek to emphasize the differences within indigenous collectivities. These tensions between singularity and diversity are made fraught in the context of colonization, where the dangers of assimilation provoke a protectionist reaction against the recognition of diversity. (83)
However, “[d]espite these tensions, the assertion of indigenous diversity can also be seen as ‘talking back’ to settler attempts to confine indigenous peoples to a singular image of traditionalism and racial purity” (83). Bell suggests that the coexistence of both traditional and hybrid forms of Indigenous culture suggest not only its survival, but also its dynamism and its refusal to be excluded from modernity (83).
“The lens of hybridity can also be applied in various ways to the settler peoples,” Bell notes (83). In terms of syncretism, “white Canadians,” for instance, are made up of a variety of European cultural and linguistic groups (83). But her primary interest, she continues, “is the way that settler-indigenous hybridity works for those who claim a settler identity,” which is “not only unproblematic for the settler, but a positive affirmation of settler being and belonging” (84).”This settler hybridity has its biological/descent and cultural dimensions, both underpinned by the desires they represent—for redemption, for belonging, for the right to inherit the authority and legitimacy of the indigene,” she writes (84). For settlers, hybridity “is always a choice, and a choice made only when hybridity is enhancing and affirming of settler being” (84). “In North America, the ‘wannabe,’ the white person claiming some real or fictitious indigenous descent, is a well-known and disparaged phenomenon,” she continues (84-85):
Critics of this phenomenon point to the ease with which the white settler subject may take up and drop such identity claims, in contrast to the difficulties of such choice for most indigenous peoples. In addition, wannabe identifications serve to meet some need or lack on the part of the settler subject—again appropriating indigeneity for their own ends—rather than supporting indigenous interests. Finally, wannabe hybridization applies only in situations where the individual stands to benefit. (85).
However, beyond the “wannabe” phenomenon, “the influence of indigenous cultures on the cultural practice of everyday lives within settler cultures is also apparent” (85). Indigenous words enter the English language, for instance (85). Settlers are “a crucial market for the works of indigenous artists and designers” (86). “To some degree such appropriations are a mark of respect and admiration for indigenous cultures,” Bell suggests. “However, the problematic point is the way in which such appropriations are divorced from any support for, or understanding of, the wider political issues of indigenous struggles for survival and recovery, or the rights of indigenous sovereignty” (86). “The problem lies in the asymmetry in the way in which indigenous-settler hybridity works for each side, problematizing indigenous identities and enhancing settler ones,” Bell concludes (86).
“Ontological hybridities offer a contrast to essentialist accounts of identity in that the involve the introduction of change and diversity into the ways in which identities are conceptualized,” Bell continues in the chapter’s last section. “Thinking of identities in ontologically hybrid terms, then, does at least offer individuals a limited degree of choice in how they identify themselves. However, it is equally clear that there are powerful social influences that work to ‘determine’ the choices individuals make” (86). For colonized people, opening up identities in the context of “the logics of the settler imaginary carries the dangers of assimilation and loss of identity” (86). In addition, ontological hybridities “do not ‘escape’ essentialism, but represent its flipside,” because they “rely on the combination, rather than dismissal, of essence/s” (86-87). She cites Charles Hale’s call “to analyse specific identities and their politics” and suggests that “politically speaking, both essentialism and hybridity can be used in the service of colonial domination or in resistance to it” (87).
“The legacy of the settler imaginary for indigenous peoples is the fraught oscillation of arguments for and against essentialism and for and against hybridity,” she writes, asking her readers to remember that those arguments take place within a “colonial environment” (87). “[W]e need to acknowledge the language of ‘blood’ as ‘a discourse of conquest with manifold and contradictory effects, but without invalidating rights and resistances that have been couched in terms of that very discourse,’” she states, quoting Strong and Van Winkle (qtd. 87). Indigenous peoples “are frequently caught in an invidious position in relation to the legacies of colonialism, legacies that include the internalization of ideas of authenticity, blood and race—and the struggle for survival against the odds” (88). She notes that Stuart Hall argued for the need to remember the “colonial break,” while also contending that it is impossible to entirely do away with, or undo, “the intertwining of European with indigenous worlds” (88). We also need to remember that “indigenous diversity and mobility has always existed,” that Indigenous societies “were never static and should never be expected to be” (88). “There was no era of ‘tradition’ before ‘modernity’; this too is a modern colonial construct,” she argues. “Colonization has greatly complicated the histories of indigenous diversity in ways that sought deliberately to undermine and destroy indigenous communities and ways of being. These colonial complications cannot be wished away or constructively denied” (88). Therefore, an Indigenous recovery “requires the combination of tradition and change, tradition and mixing, tradition and mobility, tribalism and pan-indigenism, to enable dynamic indigenous cultures to be the lifeblood of indigenous futures” (88).
Chapter Four, “Performative Hybridity in the ‘Ruins of Representation,’” begins by describing Homi Bhabha’s theory of hybridity as “the most thoroughgoing alternative alternative to the ontological versions” of hybridity (93). Years ago I tried to read Homi Bhabha’s work, and I was stymied by his impenetrable prose; perhaps Bell’s discussion will function as an explication. Bhabha, she writes,
is rigorously anti-essentialist in his approach to cultural identity, arguing that identity and culture are both practices without any essential foundation as such. No identity has an originary essence. Rather, all are constituted in and through difference. Here hybridity refers to the necessary instability and impurity of all identities, the figure of migration no longer the bearer of ontological mixture, but signifying movement itself, conceptualizing identities as forever in process, unstable, nomadic and “uprooted.” Rather than attend to the substance (hybridized or essentialized, “open” or exclusionary) of identity claims, Bhabha’s focus is the process by which identities are uttered, reiterated, performed. (93)
For Bhabha, culture is only a problem “‘at the point at which there is a loss of meaning in the contestation and articulation of everyday life, between classes, genders, races, nations” (qtd. 93-94). The purpose of culture, in such situations of conflict, “is to negotiate or disguise the conflict through appeals to community that work to exclude some and marginalize others,” and this “dominating operating of culture, and colonial culture in particular,” is what “Bhabha aims to expose and undo” (94). Bhabha “seeks out the weakness internal to such practices of domination and the scope for the play of resistant agency that this weakness offers”; he is interested in “power relations in the play of cultural identities, with practices of domination and resistance of the terrain of culture” (94).
Bhabha’s ideas are rooted in an understanding of culture and identity as systems of representation (94). “The instability and hybridity of identities arise out of two aspects of representation,” Bell writes. First, the gap between signifier and signified in language (as understood by semioticians), which is also a gap “between the asserting/speaking of identity and its reception and interpretation” (94). That gap “is a space, or time, of undecidability,” which Bhabha describes as both “Third Space” and “time-lag” (94). Second, “the notion of the ‘time-lag’ also points to the work of repetition in the construction of identity,” because “each iteration or re-presentation of identity differs from each previous iteration,” and that difference in repetition “adds to the inherent instability and lack of foundation in all acts and expressions of identity” (94). For Bhabha, “this mobility and repetition” is the source of “the opportunities for resistant agency” (94). “All subjects are migratory—in motion, contingent, moving between past representations of identity and enunciation in the present, and between enunciation and meaning,” Bell writes, and as a result, she uses the term “performative hybridity” to distinguish Bhabha’s ideas from the ontological forms of hybridity she discussed in the previous chapter (94).
According to Bell, Bhabha’s work focuses on the relationship between national and minority cultures and, more importantly for her purposes, the relationship between colonizer and colonized (94). His primary interest is in British colonialism in India, rather than settler colonialism, so he focuses on “the imperial colonizer, in the figure of the colonial administrator, and the colonized, and particularly . . . the possibilities of resistant forms of agency that the practice of representation allows,” but other scholars have applied Bhabha’s work to an analysis of settler identities as a way of illuminating and unsettling “the dynamics of colonial identity politics” (94-95). Bell’s focus is on Bhabha’s arguments “about the practice and menace of colonial mimicry, on how the ‘substance’ of cultural difference is situated in this theory, and on his use of Freud’s concept of the uncanny to describe the experience of the instability, or difference, of cultural hybridity” (95). She then examines how these ideas have been used to analyze settler and Indigenous subjectivities, particularly “the ‘doubled’ nature of the settler subject, located ‘in-between’ indigenous and metropolitan peoples” (95). However, Settler mimicry can do the work of domination, suggesting a limitation of Bhabha’s theory for thinking about settler colonialism (95). At the same time, though, “Bhabha’s performative hybridity allows us to identify possibilities of indigenous resistance,” although it “cannot acknowledge the value of the moment of ‘fixity’ in identity for indigenous peoples, which marks survival, presence, continuity, the border between indigenous self and colonizing other” (95). Bell also intends to think about “Bhabha’s uses of time and disjunction together with the very different ideas about time and indigenous identities outlined in Chapter 2 that have evolved from the disjunction of primitivism and civilization, tradition and modernity” (95). She argues that “the analysis of the indigenous presence in terms of the uncanny works by misrepresenting the co-existence of ‘indigenous time’ with ‘settler time’ as the Freudian return of the repressed” (95). According to Bell, “[p]erformative hybridity and the accompanying cluster of concepts from Bhabha’s work continue to operate on the terrain of the settler imaginary. They ‘speak back’ to this imaginary, but do not escape it. They cannot account for the existence of an autonomous indigenous ‘outside’ to colonial discourse” (95).
First, Bell tackle’s Bhabha’s notion of colonial mimicry. “The time-lag between one iteration and the next is the moment of undecidability in which the lack of essential foundation and the weakness of colonial authority are exposed and the possibility of resistance made visible,” she writes. “The practice of colonization as ‘civilizing mission’ incites the colonized subjects to make themselves anew, to become ‘civilized,’ to ‘speak’ a new ‘civilized’ identity via a process of colonial mimicry,” a process which “involves a process of doubling in which the English, for example, are repeated as the anglicized indigene, ‘almost the same but not quite’” (96). “Sameness and difference are simultaneously produced in a contradictory and ambivalent operation in which the colonial demand for mimicry points to the very difference it seeks to disavow and simultaneously insists on the retention of difference—the difference between the ‘mimic’/colonized and the ‘original’/colonizer,” she continues. “Colonial discourse is thus shown to be inherently ambivalent and the practice of colonial mimicry threatens colonial authority in two ways” (96). First, mimicry can be interpreted as a sign of respect or as mockery, “thus creating a sense of unease for the colonizer” as well as “a troubling equality between colonizer and colonized” (96). That mimicry also undermines the claims to originality of the colonizing identity by suggesting that original is not complete or finished, that it is open to translation and imitation (97). There is also a slippage between metropolitan orders and colonial imitation, which suggests that the colonizer, or settler, is also “a mimic subject, mimicking the authority of the centre” (97). Both kinds of mimicry, Bell continues, “work to undermine colonial authority, destabilizing the colonizing settler and empowering the resistant native. Thus Bhabha links the civilizing (but not quite) mission of colonialism to the deconstructionist recognition that every act of representation betrays its lack of identical-ness” (97). The “interplay of reiteration of identity and difference” is, for Bhabha, the possibility of “a resistant discursive agency which, through repetition, can disrupt colonial authority and these opposed colonial identities” (97).
Bell acknowledges that Bhabha’s focus on the imposition and mimicry of imperial authority refers to a historical situation rather than a contemporary one, that imperial authority no longer operates the way it did previously. However, it has been replaced by settler colonial authority, which “makes its own demands on indigenous peoples—that they be ‘civil’ in the sense of being Americans, Canadians and so on, while retaining their ability to ‘mimic’/perform cultural authenticity as required for cultural and symbolic purposes” (97). The desire or need for Settlers to imitate the imperial culture has been replaced by the desire or need to imitate Indigenous culture and hybridity, which suggests that performative hybridity may be a way to think about Settler appropriations of Indigenous difference (97-98). Bhabha acknowledges cultural difference, but he insists on “the undecidability of culture”: “What we identify as ‘culture’ is always a retroactive achievement; it comes after enunciation rather than providing the ground for it” (98). Culture is a matter of process, a becoming rather than a being, and for Bhabha cultural difference is not a challenge to colonization. That challenge lies elsewhere, “in the production and proliferation of a mobile, unstable and indecidable hybridity that speaks/articulates cultural ‘substance’ ‘otherwise’” (98-99).
According to Bell, “[t]he moment of difference . . . that appears in the enunciation of colonial identities is then a disturbance in the practice of colonial authority, a moment in which things threaten to escape the demands of colonial discourse,” and Bhabha uses Freud’s notion of the uncanny, which “describes a particular form of ambivalent anxiety,” to define that disturbance or unease that is “produced by the representation and disavowal of difference” (99). The uncanny is a defining colonial and post-colonial condition which “marks the disruption and unsettling of binary logics and systems of discursive domination” and is “to be embraced for its insights into the workings of dominating power and as a disruption of that power, through bringing to light what has been disavowed” (99). Bell suggests that the application of the idea of “the time-lag to the moment between the demand from the colonizer and the response from the colonized” as uncanny “seems to foreground the experience of the colonizing subject,” since they are likely to find “this opening to resistance and change” to be “‘unsettling’ or troubling” (99).
“Bhabha’s work leaves us with a cluster of concepts—performative hybridity, the time-lag, mimicry, the uncanny—that have been drawn up on by many subsequent scholars exploring the interface of colonial cultural contact,” Bell continues. In that work, “[b]oth settler and indigenous subjects are treated . . . as ‘doubled’ subjects—caught between the binaries of colonial discourse, although in distinctly different ways and with different effects” (100). Of particular importance is the work of Alan Lawson—whom I met once, 30 years ago, and who told me a story about cane toads in his Brisbane garden—“and his argument for the specificity of the settler subject as ‘in-between’ the authenticity and authority of empire and indigene” (100). According to Lawson, for Settlers “the practice of performative hybridity is unsettling but also settling,” and “the mimicries of the settler subject . . . work in support of the project of colonial domination” (100).
According to Bell, “Bhabha insists on the inherent ambivalence and ‘unhomeliness’ of colonial subjectivities. Ultimately colonialism fails to make the colonizer feel ‘at home’ in the colony, or the settler ‘at home’ in settler society” (100). Settlers are “out of place” (100). Lawson draws on Bhabha’s work to argue that “identifying the specificity of the settler subject is both ethically and hermeneutically important,” because avoiding doing so means disavowing the processes of settler colonialism (100). For Lawson, Settler cultures are “the ‘Second World,’” and he argues they are characterized by a doubleness, “at once colonizing and colonized, colonizing and other,” and thus the Settler subject is “the place where the operations of colonial power as negotiation are most intensely visible” (qtd. 101). Bell writes, “Lawson extends Bhabha’s analysis to the peculiarities of the settler subject, caught between the imperial centre and the indigene, between two sets of contending authenticities and sites of authority” (101). Both the Indigenous subject and the “imperium” are authentic (in the Romantic sense) and forms of moral authority, “the authority of ‘civilization’ in the case of the former, and of belonging and originality in the case of the latter” (101). Caught between these “contending positivities,” Settlers are figures of inauthenticity and “moral lack” which mimic “both the authority of the empire and the indigene” (101).
Bell now moves to Daniel Coleman’s work on “white civility” as “a project of peaceful and progressive settlement, bringing civilization and order to the new society,” although the borders of that project are “maintained with uncivil violence and unfair exclusions” (qtd 102). Indigenous people, for instance, are denied within the project of white civility (102). “Coleman utilizes Bhabha’s and Lawson’s insights to ‘undo’ the authority of various figures of civility in Canadian literature,” Bell writes, but he concludes that such civility also “encapsulates positive values” and which can be encouraged to extend its borders (102). That project needs to be pursued “in a knowing and self-critical way” according to a stance Coleman calls “wry civility,” a play on Bhabha’s “sly civility” of the colonized subject (102). I’ve met Daniel, too, and I admire his book Yardwork very much; I have White Civility here somewhere, and Bell’s discussion has convinced me to read it, finally.
Next, Bell returns to Lawson and his argument that “the ambivalent location of the settler manifests itself in the ‘old tripled dreams’ of the colonizer”:
The first is the dream of effacement of the indigene and evacuation of the land, which allows the practice of settlement. The second is the now familiar dream of authentic indigeneity, which in an important sense also denies that colonization occurred, or that it did no harm since indigenous authenticity remains, seemingly untouched. The third is the familiar dream of inheriting indigenous authority or rights to the land, the dream of inheritance. (102-03)
Through these dreams, Settlers disavow “the colonial relation and their role in nit, narrating their own redemption and seeking to translate their doubled-ness into the singularity of settlement and homeliness” (103). However, “the settler’s simultaneous denial of, and dependence on, the presence of indigeneity means that these dreams of replacing the indigene as ‘first people’ (authentic and authorized can never be fulfilled” (103). For that reason, settlement is “always an anxious practice of repetition that can never be final, never ‘settled’ as the settler seeks to ‘stand in for’ the indigene who can never be replaced” (103). Lawson reverses Bhabha’s theory, though, by arguing that “settler mimicry works to serve domination and settlement rather than resistance to colonization” (103), which only makes sense given the different context Lawson is discussing. Bell suggests that in an era of Indigenous cultural and political resurgence, the dream of effacement Lawson describes is a historical phenomenon. I wonder if that’s true. It is, as Bell notes, key to narratives of settlement (103), but those stories continue to be told. In any case, I’ve downloaded Lawson’s article and plan to read it when I finish with this book.
Next, Bell turns to Eva Mackey’s discussion of contemporary Canadian nationalist narratives, which “provide examples of the workings of the settler dreams of innocence and inheritance, and also show how Coleman’s project of extending the borders of settler civility might continue the work of settler colonialism, albeit in a new, inclusive form” (104). She’s referring to Mackey’s book The House of Difference, which I probably should read—with libraries closed, research is getting expensive, because I end up buying books I could have borrowed (assuming they are in the library’s collection, which is never a reasonable assumption to make, I’ve discovered). Mackey argues that “the contemporary era of reconciliation and the reconstruction of settler nationalisms to incorporate rather than deny the indigenous presence can also work to redeem the settler, to secure their innocence in the ‘postcolonial’ national present and into the future” (104). Douglas Cardinal’s design for the Museum of Civilization is Mackey’s example, because it suggests (somehow—I don’t understand the argument, although I’ve been in the building) that Settlers give to the land rather than take it, thus mimicking Indigenous authenticity and “dreaming themselves as hybridized inheritors o indigenous right” (104). Another example is the Land, Spirit, Power exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in 1992, in which the inclusion of Indigenous art serves to reconstruct Canadian national identity and tolerance, “so that the celebration of indigenous cultural vitality and diversity becomes a celebration of the nation’s redemption from the sins of colonization” (104).
For Bell, these examples “illustrate how viewing settler subjectivities through the lens of performative hybridity has significant analytic power, identifying the uncertain ontological status of the settler subject” (105). “Practices of settler mimicry,” she writes,
mark the complex doubleness of settler subjectivities and point to the work that has to be done to keep colonial history at bay. Such analyses of the settler self as the “bearer” of colonial authority open up the possibility of the work of mourning for this occluded history and a new form of settler agency as self-critique. (105)
Bell cites Stephen Turner’s work on Settler self-knowledge as a way to disrupt ongoing colonizing strategies (105)—another article I need to read: “A ‘mournful’ confrontation with history and with the losses entailed can allow new ‘versions of historic memory’ and the possibilities of a post-settler imaginary to surface” (Bhabha, qtd. 105-06). Nevertheless, she suggests that “while these analyses highlight the troubling and undoing of colonial settlement and settler claims to identity and belonging, they also highlight the endless, iterative work of settlement that maintains the conflictual colonial relations between settler and indigenous peoples” (106). I wonder if those conflictual relations are really that complicated; perhaps they’re over land—land Settlers have taken and currently occupy, land which ought to be returned to Indigenous peoples.
Bell now turns to Indigenous resistance and performative hybridity. “The colonized indigene is also a doubled subject within colonial discourse, caught between the twin injunctions previously discussed—to become ‘civilized,’ to take on the culture of the colonizer, and to be the authentic indigene,” she writes:
As with the settler subject, this in-between position of the colonized indigene allows for and necessitates various forms of identity as reiteration in the service of indigenous resistance. The performance of authenticity can work as a site of resistant indigenous agency, serving indigenous political projects. And indigenous civility can take menacing forms, if no longer the form of mimicry of imperial civility that was Bhabha’s focus. As with the declining significance of mimicry of imperial authority in the case of the settler subject, the “menacing” connotations of indigenous civility take a somewhat different form in contemporary settler societies. Rather than unsettling colonial authority by pointing to its lack of foundation as Bhabha would have it, the non-indigenous communities of settler societies today are comfortable with indigenous peoples being “just like us”—workers, consumers, individualist, modern. Where it becomes problematic is where modernity—modern skills, economic forms, educational qualifications, sophisticated legal arguments—is put to the service of indigenous, communal, collective interests, where modernity/civility is used to resist rather than embrace assimilation. In such instances “indigenous civility” can still be a menace. (106)
Bell proceeds to give two examples of such menacing civility: Patricia Wald’s analysis of the famous Cherokee Nation vs Georgia court case, and Stephen Muecke’s account of the life of David Uniapon, a Ngarindjerri man from South Australia. “Indigenous mimicry, or performance of authentic tradition, has been a frequent focus of scholarship, with ‘playing native’ often being seen as a form of acquiescence to settler demands for indigenous authenticity,” while it can also be seen as providing “a space and time in which indigenous difference is ‘recognized’ rather than disavowed and hence a site for indigenous agency” (108). She discusses the differences between Philip Deloria’s and Gerald Vizenor’s accounts of the life and writing of Charles Eastman, coming to agree with Vizenor’s association of sovereignty and agency with mobility of identity (108-10). She also discusses Simone Drichel’s analysis of Patricia Grace’s short story, “Parade,” and Stephen Pritchard’s work on contemporary Māori tattooing (110-11).
“For indigenous subjects Bhabha’s approach to hybridity draws attention to forms of resistant agency on the terrain of colonial identity politics—both a means to resist and undermine settler/colonial authority and the reclamation of indigenous cultural space under the sign of an indigenous authenticity that, by definition, excludes the settler,” Bell writes. “However, for indigenous peoples Bhabha’s theory is problematic at the very point of its strength in relation to the settler—in the focus on difference as undecidability, and on mobility over cultural substance. In a context in which a fractured and destabilized identity is understood as the outcome of colonization, the idea that this is a condition to be embraced is a difficult sell” (111). She concludes that “Bhabha’s call to indecidability is not enough,” and while it “may represent a powerful and crucial mode of resistance on the terrain of identity politics,” it doesn’t “offer any ‘ground’ for projects of indigenous recovery, which are themselves crucial forms of resistance to domination” (112). Thus it might be better to focus on the problematics of practices of Settler judgement of Indigenous authenticity and cultural difference in order to “consider how we might abandon or challenge them” (112).
In the chapter’s final section, Bell thinks “about the issue of an indigenous ‘outside’ not fully captured by colonial discourse” through a discussion of the notion of ghosts as figures for “the presence or emergence of unwelcome signs of indigeneity” that appears repeatedly in Settler literatures (112). This discussion is intended to extend Bhabha’s work “in ways that are helpful in thinking further about the continuing existence and presence of indigenous difference” (112). She discusses Renee Bergland’s work on Indigenous ghosts in early 19th-century American texts, in which “the indigene is incorporated into the time of settler history and their becoming as national subjects,” with the haunting becoming “another mode of appropriation,” as such ghosts become “the ‘ancestral spirits’ of the Americanized settler subject” (113). “Crucially though, while the indigenous ghost that haunts the settler is conceived by them as a figure from the past, a figure ‘out of time,’ for indigenous writers the indigenous ghost may mark the continuing presence of indigenous culture in time,” Bell continues (113). Such ghosts “work as ‘reconstructive agents’ that combine memory and imagining,” or tradition and recovery (113). “Other writers identify the same disruption to the settler imaginary and settler modernity by these unassimilable ‘chunks of difference’ without resort to the language of the ghost and the uncanny,” thereby refusing to reduce “indigeneity to ghostliness, to the status of relic from another time, and seek to properly register these continuing differences” (113-14). Stephen Turner’s work “on the persistence and inassimilability of Māori indigeneity,” for instance, “centres on the ongoing presence of what he calls Māori history of place, of Māori in Aoteoroa New Zealand, and on the settler inability ever to know or incorporate that history” (114). For Turner, the figure of the ghost is totally inadequate; he uses the Māori term tapu to suggest “the inassimilable ‘chunks’ of indigenous difference that lie outside and before the imposition of colonial settlement” and which “continue to exist alongside it” (114). “It is not a matter of a ‘return’ of a repressed history—that is, our own forgotten/denied history—but a matter of the co-existence of indigenous differences that are unencompassable within the worldview of western modernity, but must be reduced to ghosts, myths and dreams to be accounted for at all,” Bell writes (114). Of course, those differences could just be accepted as something beyond Settler understanding rather than reduced to anything. Why not?
“Each of these writers point to an indigenous ‘outside’—knowledges, temporalities, ontologies, life-worlds—that, while Bhabha doesn’t deny its existence (although he would deny it any foundational essence), is not his focus,” Bell continues. “Bhabha’s concern is to undo colonial discourse and colonial authority from within, to point to the internal fissures that deconstruct them,” and “the troubling repetitions of disavowed traces of difference” are central to his project (114-15). He is interested, in other words, in “how this cultural difference troubles colonial authority, rather than the ‘ground’ it provides for indigenous autonomy and persistence,” no doubt because he is not interested in settler colonialism, where “the colonizers have never left and have staked their own presence on the disappearance of any autonomous indigenous existence beyond their own categories of knowledge and evaluation” (115). For Bell, “[r]eclaiming the ground of indigenous autonomy, the indigenous outside, is . . . crucial for indigenous peoples” (115). Performative hybridity thus has limitations in the settler colonial context, particularly because its “field of operation remains the settler imaginary” and because his ideas “cannot account for the equal importance of the indigenous ‘outside’ to indigenous agency” (115). She quotes Linda Tuhiwai Smith: “the native does have an existence outside and predating the settler/native identity” (qtd. 115). That seems so obvious that it doesn’t bear repeating, but perhaps given the ways that settler colonialism have warped our perceptions, it needs to be said.
Chapter 5, “Strategic Essentialism, Indigenous Agency and Difference,” begins with a quote from Leonie Pihama about the survival of Māori identity even in a post-colonial era. “This is a position that Bhabha’s performative hybridity cannot account for,” Bell notes (116). (I wonder, then, why bother with performative hybridity at all?) Strategic essentialism, like performative hybridity, is a “central identity concept of postcolonial identity politics,” and it “aims to describe identity practices of resistance to dominant groups’ impositions,” although “unlike performative identity, it is a concept that brings us more firmly back to the ‘substance’ or ‘essence’ of identity claims” (116). The notion of “strategic” essentialism, she writes, “foregrounds the suspicions of all claims to essence evident within post-structuralist and postcolonial theories”:
On the one hand, there is the theoretical rejection of essentialism that arises out of post-structuralism and constructionist theories that view representation as constitutive, rather than expressing an already existing reality. This is the kind of theorizing evidence in Bhabha’s account of “culture as enunciation,” as something brought into being in practices of expression and reception. (116)
Such theories have the advantage of refusing “the ‘freezing’ of identities of ‘others’ that has been one of the practices of domination” (116).
“On the other hand,” Bell continues, “critical analyses of identity politics have adopted an anti-essentialist stance, pointing to the violence involved in practices of representation that inevitably reduce and exclude and hence involve forms of domination” (116-17). When boundaries are drawn around an identity in such a way that people who might choose to define themselves that way—in other words, “where self-ascription and social ascription don’t match”—it is a problem (117). “At the same time, articulations of identity are necessary, and no more so than for indigenous peoples who are struggling for their very survival,” Bell writes (117). She turns, again, to Stuart Hall for an acknowledgement of the difficulties involved in identity politics in the context of constructionism and anti-essentialism. Hall argues that the encounter with anti-essentialism is “dangerous” to Black (and, Bell adds, Indigenous) identity politics, because it leaves “claims to essence” standing “on shaky and contestable ground,” and thus such claims “can only be self-consciously ‘knowingly’ made” (117). For that reason, arguments about the “strategic use of essentialisms have been developed in acknowledgement of their continuing necessity to the politics of subordinated groups” (117). Bell suggests that strategic essentialism “is a way of having your cake and eating it too, effectively—of accepting the theory of anti-essentialism and constructionism while, as a political strategy, asserting identity claims on the basis of some ‘essence’ shared by the collective united by the name” (117).
This chapter only discusses “the encounter between the concept of strategic essentialism and assertions of ‘essential’ differences as the basis of indigenous identities,” and does not discuss the politics of Settler identity, because as dominant peoples, Settlers “grant themselves the privilege of internal diversity and flexibility—their culture is ‘normal,’ they are individuals, barely collectives at all—allowing them to largely escape the problematics of essentialism that modern western theories have imposed upon others (the authenticity of settler national identity aside” (117). Okay, but why not then recognize the “internal diversity and flexibility” that is part of Indigenous groups?
According to Bell, strategic essentialism is associated with the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and so she begins by presenting Spivak’s argument before discussing its limitations and impact, followed by a proposal for rebuilding Indigenous identities from the autonomous foundations of Indigenous difference (118). That proposal, she writes, “combines ‘essence’ and dynamism, continuity and change” (118). Accepting Indigenous knowledges and ways of being, she continues, “raises the question of the possibilities for non-colonizing relationships between these and those fo the western settler subject” (118). Bell believes that “the invocation of a dynamic, rather than static, cultural ‘essence’ as the basis for indigenous claims to autonomous difference is crucial to the assertion of full human agency. To be self-determining is to be a producer of culture and political and social orders, not just a register of domination” (118). Settler peoples can no longer deny self-determination to others; autonomous or self-determining Indigenous difference, she continues, “represents a first step towards shifting indigenous and settler relations ‘beyond’ the settler imaginary,” a “beyond” that “must be a site of epistemological pluralism, in which indigenous ways of knowing and being are accepted as equally valid as those of the west” (118).
Unlike Bhabha, Spivak is suspicious of celebrations of hybridity (118). Hybridity, for Spivak, is “‘the benign rusing face’ of the dominance of global capital,” and it “continues the domination of the colonial past” (118). Although she translated Jacques Derrida, Spivak argues that deconstruction cannot be the basis of a political program; it can only be an anti-essentialist critique, and its anti-essentialism necessarily sits alongside “the need to continue to use essence, because without essence there can be no politics” (119). For Spivak, Bell writes, “there can be no political representation . . . without the discursive representations . . . that claim an essence—‘the worker,’ ‘the woman,’ ‘the indigenous’ or ‘the colonized’” (119). Such essentialism is a strategy that is necessary to political action (119). “She is concerned with the construction of a subaltern agency through strategic recourse to the humanist subject,” Bell continues (119). However, she writes, “[o]ne of the key limitations of strategic essentialism . . . is that it cannot account for the place and role of the now subordinated Aboriginality itself, except as a political strategy in resistance to domination” (119-20). In contrast, Bell argues for “the continuing place of indigenous ontologies and epistemologies (in other words, the ‘facticity’ of indigenous difference) in the practice of indigenous agency” (120). “Indigenous knowledge systems constitute a counter-archive to the colonial archive that has been the source of domination,” she states (120).
For Bell, there are three critiques to be made about the limitations of strategic essentialism in relation to the politics of Indigenous peoples:
Firstly, there is the suggestion in Spivak’s work that essentialism is a “good” strategy only when it seeks to undo the very terms it invokes; a logic that I argue has its limitations for indigenous identity politics. . . . For indigenous peoples, essentialist claims (to cultural authenticity) may have a deconstructive element . . . but are also importantly about claiming and protecting some autonomous space, a space in which indigenous rather than settler peoples judge what is correct and appropriate or not. Secondly, in ignoring the content of identity claims in favour of their strategic uses, the concept ignores the point that the “substance” claimed in the practice of political representation does matter. Finally, strategic essentialism remains anti-essentialist in that it holds that the “essence” underpinning an identity claim is not true, not real, not authentic, but a claim made for political purposes—as a strategy. (120)
For Spivak, Bell continues, “the ‘good’ use of essentialism can only be in the pursuit of a deconstructive project, a political project whose aim is to overcome the very terms it invokes,” such as “Marx’s invocation of class consciousness to fight capital in the ultimate interest of overcoming class altogether” (120). The “political aim of the subaltern subject is to critique the very form of subjectivity they invoke (because the foundations of these subjectivities are not ‘real’ but arise from antagonistic social relations” (121). However, applying this idea to the colonized, Indigenous subject is complex. “What is it about the form of this subject that is being critiqued?” Bell asks, noting that, unlike the example of class consciousness, “the claiming of indigenous identities is not aimed at ultimately dismantling indigeneity” (121). Rather, “indigenous peoples crucially desire to maintain their difference and autonomous existence” (121). It is colonization that is to be dismantled—“colonial relations and the colonial identities of colonizer and colonized”—while maintaining “the difference of indigeneity” (121). “Any politics of recovery for colonized people requires more than the deconstruction of colonial relations,” Bell argues; instead, it requires “the survival and recovery of the remnants of the ‘Aboriginal dominant’” (121). She suggests that “a crucial part of the indigenous project is not only the destruction of colonialism but the ‘recovery’ of those fragments of indigenous ontologies and epistemologies” (121). “Hence, Spivak’s support for the use of essentialism as resistance to domination does not translate exactly to the situation of indigenous identity politics,” Bell continues (122). Indigenous political agency involves a positive politics of resistance and resurgence,” she states, citing Taiaiake Alfred and Jeff Corntassel (122).
In the chapter’s next section, Bell explores the problems of anti-essentialist positions for the recovery of “the indigenous ‘outside’” (123). She concludes that “two crucial features [are] necessary to decolonizing identities: agency and the cultural remnants from the ‘Aboriginal dominant’—memories, traditions, languages, concepts, everyday practices that survive from the time before colonization” (127). These are intertwined: “to be a producer of culture is to be a creative, sovereign agent” (127). According to Bell, “Indigenous writers throughout the CANZUS societies are integrally involved in projects of cultural regeneration within their own communities and are clear in their assertion of a distinct and autonomous source or ‘essence’ in the construction of indigenous identities” (127). She cites Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s discussion of Indigenous spirituality and M. Scott Momaday’s notion of “blood memory” as examples (127-28). “In invoking indigenous forms of spirituality, or forms of connection to past and place that lie outside of western frameworks of knowledge, Smith and Momaday point to both dimensions of projects of indigenous recovery,” Bell writes. “Such a project requires a space of autonomy, a boundary between the indigenous and non-indigenous, in which to act. Within that space indigenous communities can pursue the project of reclaiming and rebuilding the cultural fragments that found distinctly indigenous ways of life” (128).
“As the terminology suggests—recovery, resurgence, re-inhabiting, re-membering, re-making—the foundations of autonomous indigenous identities cannot take the form if a static traditionalism as represented in the settler imaginary,” Bell continues (128). Indigenous people, in other words, can be just as dynamic, diverse, and contradictory as Settlers, and if Indigenous identities are based on pre-colonial foundations that doesn’t mean “they are unsullied” or “come to the present ‘whole’ and untouched by history” (128). In fact, “[t]hat passage through history is indicated by the use of terms such as ‘fragments’” (128-29). She discusses Eva Marie Garroutte’s notion of “radical indigenism” as one way that Indigenous communities might approach the project of recovery “on dynamic foundations” (129). Garroutte “argues for the importance of forms of indigenous self-construction for two primary reasons”: first, the desire for recovery of Indigenous traditions as something living and in which to live, and second, the idea that Indigenous knowledges have value for the rest of the world (129). Bell quotes Garroutte’s definition of “radical indigenism”: “rebuilding traditional knowledge from its roots, its fundamental principles” (qtd. 130). “This is a firmly indigene-centric project, founded on the traditions, values, knowledges, practices and stories that persist within indigenous communities,” Bell writes. “Fundamental to the project of radical indigenism is that indigenous cultural resources be taken seriously as bodies of scholarship, equal to those of western science” (130). Their spiritual elements need to be retained and taken seriously, rather than being understood as merely symbolic (130). She cites Anthony Appiah’s statement that it isn’t obvious how much spirituality intellectuals must give up or understand as merely ceremonial as an issue for scholars of radical indigenism as well (130). Garroutte advocates that Indigenous communities engage in a method of inquiry that “begins from the ‘Original Instructions’ of the cultural tradition” (130). This argument doesn’t seem too far from John Borrow’s insistence that Indigenous stories contain legal principles, and Garroutte does discuss punishments for social transgressions, such as banishment, and the fact that “kinship obligations in American Indian communities extend beyond the human world to the animal and natural worlds” (131).
“Acceptance of the living difference of indigenous knowledges and ways of being—and of their necessity to the survival of indigenous peoples, as peoples—raises the issue of the ‘proper’ relationship between these indigenous knowledges and western knowledge, and between western/settler people and indigenous knowledges,” Bell continues. “How can or should settler peoples relate to indigenous difference in ways that do not continue the politics of erasure and assimilation canvassed earlier in this book? What might it mean to take indigenous epistemological and ontological and temporal differences seriously—as something lived, to relate to as equal but different forms of rationality, as something to ‘encounter?’” (131-32). Those are excellent questions, ones I struggle with when I am asked to accept the notion of a Creator by an Indigenous Elder, and as Bell suggests, they “relate to the larger question of how settler and indigenous peoples might co-exist in non-colonizing ways”:
What relationships between indigenous and settler knowledges and ways of being will support the project of decolonization? Are these bodies of knowledge entirely distinct? Are they incommensurable? Is it possible for settler peoples, with their problematic legacies of “knowing” indigenous peoples as a means of assimilation, to learn from indigenous peoples and engage with indigenous knowledge in ways that are not colonizing? (132)
Bell begins with the question of whether Indigenous and western knowledges are incommensurable, beginning with the Australian scholar Dick Moses, who criticizes the idea that they are incommensurable. For Moses, a Settler scholar, arguments about “the radical difference of indigenous knowledges and ways of being” and “their untranslatability and pristine difference from the orders of western thought and being” is that “such positions are linked to the tendencies to idealize pre-colonial indigeneity and hence to render that indigeneity beyond critique, including self-critique” (132). That kind of orientation also limits Indigenous agency by blaming everything on the colonizer (132). He suggests that the work of Indigenous scholars, such as Garroutte, whom he argues see Indigenous difference in less absolute terms, indicates an openness to engagement by outsiders (133). However, Bell notes that while Garroutte does see Indigenous scholarship as something that is open to all, she contends that Settlers “must be prepared to ‘enter tribal philosophies’ and ‘enter tribal relations’” (qtd. 133); in other words, they must be willing “to abandon any idea of the superiority of western systems of knowledge and to accept indigenous philosophies as legitimate and operating according to their own rationalities,” as well as becoming “primarily accountable to the tribe, to make a commitment to the indigenous community with which one works, to accept their authority at the price of lessening one’s own academic authority, and also to accept the tribe’s requirements that some knowledge not be made public” (133). For many Settler academics, these demands might be difficult to accept.
It’s clear, then, that for Settlers, engaging with Indigenous knowledge, on Garroutte’s terms, “is not simply a matter of book learning, but of living and experience, and also, crucially, of entering into relationships of responsibility and reciprocity with indigenous communities” (133). “This demand for a high standard of commitment from non-indigenous individuals seeking to engage with indigenous knowledges seems reasonable in the face of the history of colonization and the role that the assimilation and reduction of indigenous knowledge has played in that history,” Bell continues (133-34). Allowing Settlers to engage with Indigenous peoples remains dangerous for the latter, because of the danger of Settler mimicry: “if settlers can know and do it too, what happens to the authority and autonomy of indigenous knowledges and ways of being?” (134).
“Finally,” Bell writes, “while the divide between indigenous knowledge and non-indigenous individuals is not unbridgeable,” in one instance, “this divide is at times absolute, and at least more difficult to straddle . . . and the ontological difference . . . apparent”:
While the western mind is capable of learning indigenous ways, or learning to walk in an indigenous world (with much effort and time and the right orientation to engagement), indigenous and western knowledges cannot be ‘held’ or ‘lived’ at the same time. In some crucial sense, and at some crucial points, the two cannot be combined or brought together; it is one or the other. (134)
For instance, one might see a rock as “a sedimentation of organic compounds,” or as a spiritual being, “but not both at once,” or a river can be either “a resource to be exploited” or an ancestor, but not “both at once” (134). “There are times—when it comes to practice, to living—where it must be either/or,” Bell writes. “This is the meaning of the saying that indigenous people have to ‘walk in two worlds. As non-indigenous peoples we can learn to walk in two worlds also—if we are willing. But the question of how the two worlds themselves co-exist remains” (134).
In the chapter’s conclusion, Bell returns to the concept of strategic essentialism, suggesting that it foregrounds the notion that all identity claims are inherently political (135). However, she continues, “the ‘substance’ of identity claims are a crucial part of those politics—what is claimed to found a particular identity does matter,” because such claims “rely on the articulation of some ‘substance,’ some positive content” (135). To claim that all claims about content or substance are essentialist “is of little political or analytic assistance” (135). “The historicized and constructionist approach to identity,” she suggests, “avoids the assertion of essence in terms of fixity and purity, allowing for the interweaving of elements of continuity and change,” allowing for a “dynamic construction of identity” that allows Indigenous people “the freedom to be self-defining and to be both traditional and modern,” something Settlers assume for themselves (135). “This is precisely one of the gains of constructionism over assertions of purity and stasis,” she continues. “The narratives of history and the choices and emphases made in practices of identity construction, and living an identity, are always subject to revision and remain sites of contestation” (135). Accepting “the living difference of indigenous epistemologies and ontologies raises important challenges for the non-indigenous members of settler societies,” however, because of the claims to universal truth that are deeply rooted in Western thought (135). “The provocation that other knowledges and ways of being lay at the door or the west is to accept the equal validity and value—at times even superiority—of ways other than the west’s own,” Bell writes. “The challenge of not reducing unassimilable indigenous beliefs and practices to the status of myth and superstition, of grappling with other cultures’ standards of evidence and truth, is not to be underestimated” (135). Decentering the the West, she states, citing Salman Sayyid, means abandoning any notion of the universality of the Western project (136). The third part of Bell’s book “aims to provide some insight into the complexity of this challenge and possibilities for engaging it” (136).
Chapter 6, “‘Deep Colonizing’: The Politics of Recognition,” begins with the announcement that this chapter, and the next, will “centre on modes of settler responsiveness to the co-existing, living difference of indigenous communities” (139). “If settler peoples accept the rights of indigenous peoples to establish the boundaries of their own communities and collective identities, and their rights to pursue their own ‘ways of life,’ then how to settlers respond to indigenous claims and assertions as neighbours and co-citizens?” she asks (139). What do Settlers need to do “to support indigenous projects of repair and recovery”—or at least “not to hinder and thwart them?” (139). “What kinds of future relationships might we envisage between indigenous and settler peoples that would support indigenous flourishing, and avoid repeating the colonial patterns of misrecognition of indigenous cultures and peoples as authentic or inauthentic, primitive or civilized?” she continues. “And, at the heart of all these questions is another—what changes in settler self-identities and entrenched patterns of thought and behaviour are required to support the development of new, decolonized relationships between indigenous and settler peoples?” (139-40). These are the questions at the heart of my research, and I don’t know how to answer them; my hope is that Bell can provide some ideas.
She notes that Settler state responses to Indigenous political struggles have generally taken the form of a politics of recognition: “Through a range of legal and political processes—courts, tribunals, commissions of inquiry—settler governments have sought to ‘recognize’ indigenous cultural difference and indigenous persistence, and to ‘reconcile’ or ‘settle’ the rights claims made by indigenous communities” (140). The focus of Indigenous communities has been on reparations for injustices and “securing the land and resources to ensure the continuing life of the community”—including “forms of self-governance, sovereignty, self-determination” (140). Those claims are supported by two different kinds of argument: “that the group has survived colonization and continues to exist, and that they have experienced injustice as a result of acts of commission or omission of the settler state” (140). In other words, those claims are underpinned by “claims to peoplehood and debates over history” (140). Recognition politics takes a variety of forms, but it typically involves negotiations between Indigenous communities and governments (140-41). “The focus of this chapter will be on the legal arguments and processes that adjudicate on issues of collective indigenous rights and redress,” both Indigenous and Settler—the latter represented by Charles Taylor, Will Kymlicka, and James Tully (141). Then the chapter will consider the achievements and limitations of the politics of recognition for Indigenous communities, before finally discussing “what desires of the settler subject are highlighted by theories and politics of recognition” (141).
First come the different theories of recognition of cultural difference (141). Taylor’s account of cultural difference “is based in a theory of identity” and thus “most closely follows the concerns around which this book is structured” (141). Kymlicka, on the other hand, “begins from the reality of multiculturalism and a concern to work through the possibilities of multiculturalism being accommodated within liberal political theory” (141). Tully also begins with multiculturalism, and asks if the British common law tradition can accommodate cultural plurality (141). “These theories of recognition then arise from attempts to develop the philosophical bases on which liberalism can be modified to encompass collective forms of difference,” Bell writes. “How can liberalism, fundamentally based on the equality and freedom of rational individuals, be transformed to account for collective forms of life and group rights?” (141). Each theory “turns our gaze back on the western liberal subject and what changes are required of, and can be accommodated within, settler liberalism in response to the claims for justice of culturally distinct communities” (141-42).
First up is Charles Taylor’s theory, “founded on a Hegelian argument that identity is intersubjectivity constituted” (142). In other words, identity is not an essence but is developed socially, through interaction with others, which means that a successful or secure individual identity depends on recognition from others (142). Culture is therefore “a requirement of human flourishing and a multicultural liberal society needs to be able to recognize cultural diversity” (142). But for Taylor there are limits to liberalism’s ability to recognize cultural difference; some forms of culture will be incompatible with and unrecognizable to a liberal polity (142). At the same time, “the demand that cultural difference be recognized as of equal worth cannot be easily dismissed” (142). Taylor explores the debate over expanding the literary canon to include women and nonwhite authors, which requires a revision of judgements of literary value: “calls for changes to the grounds for cultural judgement amount to the demand for the recognition of the equal worth of the claimant culture” (142). Quick judgements run the risk of ethnocentric outcomes, to before granting recognition of equal worth we need to study the cultures in question and judge their contributions to human society (142-43). In the meantime, we owe claimants the “‘presumption of equal worth,’ grounded in the assumption that ‘cultures that have provided the horizon of meaning for large numbers of human beings . . . are almost certain to have something that deserves our admiration and respect, even if it is accompanied by much that we [liberals] have to abhor and reject” (qtd. 143). For Taylor, Bell writes, “relations of recognition are fundamentally epistemological; they are a matter of knowledge, relations formed in learning about each other,” and each side must remain open to the possibility of learning form the other (143). The epistemological relation on which we base our judgements about cultural value are “construed as mutual and reciprocal, rather than dominating and reductive,” and it results in a transformation and fusion of the epistemological frameworks of both sides (143).
For Bell, there are three fundamental problems with Taylor’s theory for those who want to “conceptualize a non-dominating relation with indigenous cultural difference” (143). First, despite Taylor’s emphasis on “reciprocal engagement and a willingness on the part of each group to be transformed by the study of the other, from the outset there is a degree of inequality in the roles of the parties to the recognition relation; there is a ‘recognizer’ and a ‘recognizee’” (143). The Western liberal subject and society do not need to be recognized, in other words: “Only the culture and identity of one side of this engagement is subject to judgement by the other” (143). The side that makes judgements is the Western liberal side. In addition, Taylor is “clear that there are limits to what the judging (western) self will accept,” and the “asymmetry of the relationship suggests that the only ‘displacements’ likely to occur for liberal, western subjects in this exchange will be freely chosen expansions of their existing ‘horizon of value’” (144). “Anything too discomforting or ‘abhorrent’ to that liberal culture would result in the claimants’ case being rejected,” Bell writes (144). Second, “the outcome of successful struggles for recognition would be ‘inclusion’ within broadly existing liberal frameworks” (144). The claimant for recognition is thus one that implicitly comes from outside those frameworks (144). Desires for self-determination are not addressed in Taylor’s theory (144). In addition, “the logic of the relationship in this account is one in which the claimant of recognition ‘arrives’ from the outside, reversing the historical relations of colonization which began with the arrival of those who established the liberal state on indigenous lands” (144). Applying this theory to Indigenous-Settler relations would involve a “crucial amnesia around issues of first occupation and prior right” (144). I doubt, though, that Taylor is considering Indigenous-Settler relations in his theory; isn’t his concern with the cultural claims of immigrants to Settler society? Finally, Bell argues that “there is a problem with Taylor’s view of recognition as a fundamentally epistemological relation of ‘getting to know’ each other”: it presupposes that culture is “a unified, discrete—and fairly static—totality” (144). This suggests that essentialism has snuck back into Taylor’s theory. Moreover, the “assumption that a culture is a knowable whole problematically repeats the form of epistemological domination by which the west has studied and consumed difference. Indigenous people, and non-white people generally, are weary and wary of being studied and subjected to western categories of evaluation” (144). “In sum,” Bell concludes, “for colonized peoples Taylor’s vision of social inclusion as a ‘fusion of horizons’ sounds suspiciously like assimilation and the continuing loss of culture and identity already familiar after centuries of colonialism and domination” (145).
Next, Bell takes on Will Kymlicka’s theory of recognition, which “is grounded in political theory rather than a theory of identity” (145). In addition, relations between Settlers and Indigenous peoples are central to Kymlicka’s argument. “Like Taylor, Kymlicka argues that individual freedom requires membership of your own ‘societal culture,’” and such cultures give us “‘contexts of choice’ within which individual life choices are offered and lives are made meaningful” (145). Kymlicka believes that “the right of indigenous communities to recognition is based on their existence as ‘national minorities,’ defined as ‘historical communit[ies] more or less institutionally, complete, occupying a given territory or homeland, sharing a distinct language and culture,” and on the basis of that definition, those communities can be granted “‘group-differentiated rights’—to self determination and to special representation at national levels of government” (145). For Kymlicka, then, Indigenous peoples would have to meet the criteria of a national minority, “with all the inherent pitfalls of defining and then trying to establish historical continuity and cultural distinctiveness after centuries of colonial pressures aimed at destroying indigenous communities” (145). Kymlicka does recognize this problem, and he “argues that even a severely decimated culture can be rebuilt and that it is up to individuals and groups whether or not that is what they want” (145). Therefore, “the primary requirements of Kymlicka’s definition are the desire, or political will, to assert cultural distinctiveness and the occupation of an appropriate territory” (145). Occupation of territory, for Kymlicka, means being the majority in a specific geographical enclave; “groups who do not live in such distinct territorial enclaves” have “no other avenue to the recognition of their indigeneity in this theory” (145). For Kymlicka, “claims for collective rights can be based on either appeals to equality (the right to live within your own societal culture and therefore for your culture to receive special protections if it is disadvantaged in the ‘cultural market-place,’” or on “the existence of ‘historical agreements’” (145-46). He notes that not all Indigenous nations joined Canada voluntarily, “but considers this renegotiable in the present to make the basis of their federation ‘more voluntary’” (146).
As with Taylor, Bell writes, “in Kymlicka’s account there is a ‘recognizer’ and a ‘recognizee’” (146). That relationship is “fundamentally asymmetrical,” and while he acknowledges colonial injustice, “he is pragmatic about the existence of the settler state and the fact that indigenous communities are now ‘inside’ that state and hence must negotiate their existence within it” (146). Any recognition therefore “must ultimately be compatible with liberalism” and “the legitimacy of the settler state is not subject to question” (146). Again, “only one side is set up for judgement of their identity and rights” (146). In addition, “the terms of what might be granted if those rights are recognized are already preset for both Taylor and Kymlicka—effectively a mix of policies aimed at cultural protection and, in Kymlicka’s case, limited forms of self-government” (146). Neither suggests that the dialogue between the Settler state and Indigenous nations “might include an open-ended discussion of what they want, in which anything might be considered,” including “the legitimacy of the settler state itself” (146).
Finally, Tully “begins with the fact of cultural difference in contemporary Canadian society but, rather than framing his argument in terms of the relationship between liberalism and multiculturalism, explores the history of British constitutional law for historical forms of recognition” (146). He compares “ancient constitutionalism” to “modern constitutionalism,” which “encompasses liberalism, communitarianism and nationalism” (146). Tully sees the ancient version as supporting cultural diversity (146-47). It “rests on three ‘conventions’—mutual recognition, consent and continuity”—guides to action which become norms over time, through repeated use, “and hence provide a negotiated and already tried foundation on which to pursue justice in cultural recognition” (147). Bell suggests that consent and continuity are straightforward and represent improvements over Taylor’s politics of recognition: consent is “the fact that a constitution requires the consent of all parties,” and continuity holds that a peoples’ culture and forms of government continue even after conquest unless they explicitly agree to change them (147). “Mutual recognition is fundamentally recognition of peoplehood and rights to self-government,” but it is different from Taylor’s and Kymlicka’s version of recognition, because rather than “an end state to be achieved or settled in any way once and for all,” it is “a form of ongoing commitment to a relationship, with any settlements and agreements being understood as moments that over time will need to be revisited and adapted to present ends” (147). That resembles the Indigenous understanding of treaties, I think. For Tully, dialogue is a “multilogue,” a term he uses to “highlight the multiplicity and cross-cutting nature of diversity” (147). “The nature of multilogue depends on two key orientations or understandings of the nature of the parties to the relationship,” Bell writes (147). First, “cultures cannot be conceived as discrete wholes, but are rather overlapping, and internally diverse” (147). Tully’s “implicit assumption” regarding culture is “that groups seeking recognition are defined by their historical existence and political will for distinction, as in Kymlicka’s account” (147). Recognition isn’t “recognition of a knowable cultural whole,” as Taylor suggests (147). Second, in a multilogue between peoples, the participants must be able to speak in their own languages and according to their “‘customary ways’” (147). “Participation in the multilogue takes place on an intercultural ‘middle ground’” made up of “‘the overlap, interaction and negotiation of cultures over time’” (qtd. 147-48).
According to Bell, Tully’s theory is better than Taylor’s or Kymlicka’s: “His conceptualization of cultures as overlapping and intertwined is an advance on Taylor’s conception of cultural difference in particular,” and his “emphasis on the need for mutuality and an ongoing commitment to relationship counters the asymmetrical terms of Kymlicka’s and Taylor’s theories” (148). However, “potential shortcomings are evident” in Tully’s fundamental argument “that the western tradition of constitutional law has the capacity to embrace legal pluralism,” since that capacity has rarely been acted upon (148):
So despite the possibility and ideal of mutuality and pluralist participation in the law, what is going to motivate the settler legal system to enact the pluralism Tully calls for? Participation in itself is not enough. Indigenous peoples have participated in legal processes in settler courts for hundred of years but, until recently, have rarely won or, where they have, governments have overruled or ignored the decisions. Tully’s argument suggests the need for fundamental changes in the orientations of courts and legal frameworks when it comes to engaging with indigenous difference. (148)
For Bell, this discussion “highlights two key and interconnected dimensions” of recognition politics in CANZUS states (148). One is the issue of “asymmetry versus mutuality” and “the extent to which indigenous communities are empowered or judged within relations of recognition, the extent to which their political agency and will are foregrounded, their assertions of identity accepted on their own cultural terms, or their claims assessed by the standards of settler frameworks of judgement” (148). Is a middle ground possible? What can recognition offer? Does recognition enable self-determination? The second issue is assimilation versus pluralism (148). Can Settler states “embrace and give equal respect to indigenous worldviews, indigenous difference” through recognition (148)? Do “recognition politics mark a new form of assimilation of indigenous ways of life to those fo the settler majorities?” (148-49). Those are the questions Bell takes up next.
The issue of recognition involves “the work of courts, commissions of inquiry and governments that respond to indigenous rights claims,” Bell states (149). The literature on this topic is huge, and her “necessarily incomplete overview is intended to identify some crucial features of what has been achieved as well as the limitations of the politics of recognition as it currently exists” (149). “Are the terms of engagement such that indigenous worldviews and conceptions of identity are treated on equal footing with settler frames of reference?” Bell asks. “And is the practice of recognition such that new forms of pluralist accommodation are made with indigenous lifeways and epistemologies?” (149). “Throughout the CANZUS states, indigenous difference and autonomy is now accepted as a ‘social fact,’” Bell continues, although the “forms and extent of self-governance, practice of treaty-making and recognition of indigenous rights vary widely” (149). This summary will focus on Canada, which, Bell notes, is the only one of the four states “to have recognized indigenous rights in its constitution,” in Section 35 (151). However, in Canada land rights and governance rights are treated separately (151). The 1973 Calder decision accepted that Indigenous land rights exist unless explicitly extinguished, and it “ushered in a new era of indigenous rights claims,” defined as either “specific claims” (in which the Crown had failed to discharge its duties according to previous treaties) or “comprehensive claims” (in which no treaties previously existed) (151). The 1997 Delgamuuku v. British Columbia decision was the next breakthrough; there, the Supreme Court extended recognition of Indigenous rights beyond land use to rights to Aboriginal land title (151). At the same time, some First Nations have been able to negotiate modern treaties through the comprehensive claims process (151). Bell’s main example is the territory of Nunavut, which led to self-government, as did the 200 Nisga’a Final Agreement (151).
From here, Bell moves to critiques of the politics of recognition, beginning with the work of Elizabeth Povinelli, who, as a result of her experience in Australia, “argues that legal recognition . . . involves the inspection and examination of Aboriginal ‘being’ and ‘being worthy’ that ‘always already constitutes indigenous persons as failures of indigeneity as such,’ judging living Aboriginal persons against a standard of indigenous tradition and authenticity that is not in fact theirs” (153). The first question the juridical bodies of Settler states must decide is whether a person or group fits their categories of valid Indigenous claimants (153). Indigenous descent is one criterion; representing an Indigenous community is another; historical continuity a third (153). That final criterion is the most vexed, given the effects of colonialism. “In each jurisdiction before any engagement over the substance of recognition proper can begin, the standard of indigenous ‘being’ is set by the settler legal and political system rather than indigenous people themselves,” Bell writes (154). “Most stringently, indigenous ‘being’ is frequently assessed by various standards of continuity to determine whether or not the claimant group are the ‘traditional’ owners of the lands under claim” (155). Usually, an Indigenous community “cannot have a broken or disrupted narrative of identity, despite the pressures of living under colonialism” (156). Thus, “[s]ettler state practices of recognition of indigenous rights work in various ways . . . to judge indigenous ‘being,’ to create winners and losers, and to re-shape indigenous communities into a ‘recognizable’ form” (156). “One assumption,” Bell notes,
is that pre-contact communities were discrete and located in clearly defined geographical territories. Settler law cannot encompass overlapping groups and territories, or fluid and dynamic boundaries between peoples. Against that assumption, indigenous communities were frequently layered and fluid in constitution. (156)
That was certainly true in southern Saskatchewan, where multilingual and multinational communities of Cree and Saulteaux people, or Cree, Saulteaux, and Nakoda, were commonplace. However, “[i]n legal and political rulings on Aboriginal identities, traces are evident of the persistent demand for a static authenticity (and the parallel production of inauthenticity)” (157). In the past, Settler states demanded change and assimilation; now they demand that Indigenous peoples “demonstrate the unchanging nature of their traditions,” and where they denied Indigenous peoples a land base by forcibly removing them from traditional lands, Settler states now demand that “they demonstrate their continuous relationship with those lands” (157). Bell cites Povinelli’s words: “taking a claim before tribunals and courts opens Aboriginal subjects up to becoming the ‘wounded subjects’ of settler state recognition, forced to ‘recite’ their traditions, a process that inevitably marks their difference from their ancestors and exposes them to accusations of inauthenticity” (157).
“The central focus of Povinelli’s critique of the ‘cunning of recognition’ is the relationship between recognition and liberalism,” Bell writes (157). Legal judgements in Australia, for instance, which “appear to represent legal pluralism” actually “establish a hierarchical relationship that subordinates Aboriginal customary law to the common law” (157-58). “Aboriginal law is only recognizable because the common law says so—and as long as it is not too ‘repugnant,’ too different from or ‘inconsistent’ with the principles of the common law,” Bell continues (158). Povinelli argues that “the politics of cultural recognition are fundamentally a response to a crisis in the legitimacy of liberalism itself,” which has in recent decades had to face the illiberality of its history in relation to “a range of cultural others, so that the claims to equality and freedom that underpin liberalism are at risk” (158). The politics of recognition is a response, and it “turns a crisis for liberalism itself into a ‘crisis of culture’ and creates the challenge of how to ‘fit’ cultural difference into liberalism without rupturing it” (158). It does so by treating culture as a think and making “others (indigenous peoples) ‘speak’ that thingification” (158). Recognition is a way of warding off “the dangers of rupture to liberalism that indigenous rights claims represent” and it constitutes “a further set of limits to the practice of recognition” and points out “the blockages to the adoption of legal pluralism” (158). “To date, the practice of recognition has involved the establishment of clear limits to how far the liberal settler state will go to accommodate indigenous difference,” Bell writes, noting that in Canada “judges have commented on the limits of recognition in terms of the need to ensure there is no ‘strain’ or ‘fracture’ in the law” (158). Such limits “are in line with the assertions both Taylor and Kymlicka that there is a limit to liberalism’s ability to accommodate cultural difference and support the criticism that recognition politics operate as strategies of containment” (159).
In the U.S., recent court decisions have found that Indigenous nations were “too late” in pursuing their rightful claims to land and other forms of redress (159). The same is true in Australia (159). In Canada, the emphasis seems to be on “constraints and limits” on the recognition of Indigenous rights (160). Courts in this country “struggle with the sui generis nature of native title and the extent and limits of accommodation with it within the common law” (160). Even in the Delgamuukw v. British Columbia decision, the recognition of equal status for the Gitksan and Wet’suwet’an peoples was limited by accommodation must not “‘strain’” the Canadian judicial system (161). Thus, legally speaking, Indigenous peoples must fit into the existing Canadian legal and constitutional structure, and translate their claims, evidence, and history into that framework (161). Delgamuukw is really about Canada’s legal system judging the Gitksan system, rather than a dialogue, and the recognition it offers is a one-way process (161).
Legal pluralism, according to Tully, “requires the recognition of the autonomy and validity of indigenous systems of law, which then meets in ‘multilogue’ with the common law” (162). However, the Supreme Court has treated Indigenous oral traditions “as evidence to be judged, failing to acknowledge that they are an expression of a distinct indigenous legal tradition” (162). Such processes subordinate Indigenous peoples because they do not recognize that there is more than one system of law in Canada (162). Moreover, legal pluralism requires “active indigenous participation in the legal processes that adjudicate over indigenous claims—the incorporation of Aboriginal elders, judges and counsel, she writes, citing John Borrows. Only those with the adequate indigenous knowledge base are qualified and equipped to deal with indigenous oral histories respectfully and knowledgeably” (163). That argument moves towards Tully’s call for “a ‘middle ground’ of cultural overlap, interaction and negotiation,” where each side “gets to speak and be recognized in their own languages and according to their own customs, although a genuine equality in power-sharing that is difficult to envisage in settler legal contexts would be crucial to such a ‘middle ground’” (163).
To this point, Bell acknowledges, her emphasis has been “on the limitations of the politics of recognition,” and she suggests that “[i]t must also be noted that very real gains have been made by indigenous communities across the CANZUS states as a result of these new forms of political engagement,” with “millions of acres of land . . . returned to indigenous control and many millions of dollars . . . paid in compensation for losses not able to be restored” (165). Supports for endangered languages have been negotiated, and the economic development of Indigenous communities has been supported with settlements over land and resource rights (165). Some nations have achieved self-government, and while such sovereignty is always limited, it can lead to “government-to-government relations” being established between Indigenous nations and the central government (165). In addition, the practice of negotiated settlements has been brought about through the efforts of Indigenous peoples, rather than “any magnanimous shift in sentiment on the part of the settler states” (166). Nevertheless, Settler governments “retain most of the cards at the table and largely continue to set the rules of the game” of negotiation (166).
Bell’s assessment of the practices she has been discussing is mixed. For the communities that have succeeded in these processes, “the balance between asymmetry and mutuality has certainly tipped towards the mutual pole, even if it remains far short of the desired self-determination and equality” (166). Cultural difference provides “the glue of community cohesion and the foundation of the demand for recognition,” but “successful claimants of recognition run the risk . . . of becoming ‘unrecognizable’ to the liberal state” (166-67). “The successful exercise of indigenous sovereignty can paradoxically put its future at risk as indigenous communities no longer take the form and occupy the social location that made their need recognizable,” Bell writes. “Settler backlash against the ‘special privileges’ of indigenous communities is a symptom of this danger” (167). Within Indigenous communities there can be tension over following capitalist forms of development as well (167). But “indigenous sovereignty and cultural difference can be mutually reinforcing” (167).
Have recognition politics led to “a new form of indigenous assimilation within settler regimes,” or have they “resulted in shifting and decentering those regimes in substantial ways” (167)? For Bell, the results are, again, mixed. “Settler sovereignty and the liberal framework of law and politics remain the ‘bottom line’ across the CANZUS states,” she writes, and while in some instances “indigenous worldviews and values have been inserted into the liberal law . . . indigenous legal systems have yet to achieve anything like equal status on a ‘middle ground’ of pluralist engagement” (168). “Overall, the politics of recognition is a game that indigenous communities cannot not play, its ‘messy actualities’ representing the latest turn in the project of colonization,” she suggests, citing Bargh and Otter (168). Settler responses to Indigenous assertions of sovereignty and difference are important: “The tensions of the ‘double-binds’ of recognition are clearly apparent. Settler peoples continue to sit in judgement, denying indigenous self-determination while demanding indigenous difference, but only of a tolerable/compatible sort” (168).
Next, Bell looks at “settler subjectivity in relations of recognition” through the work of Patchen Markell, who looks at what recognition does for the one doing the recognizing (168). For Markell, practices of recognition offers the dominant group “‘an imperfect simulation of the [sovereign] invulnerability they desire” (qtd. 169). For Markell, both Taylor and Kymlicka exhibit “a recurring desire for mastery” in their theories (169). Part of the problem is the notion of cultural wholes, which reassure members of the dominant group “that the demands of cultural recognition will be finite and manageable” (169). Along with fantasies of mastery, “the liberal subjects of recognition” also seek “to secure redemption from their illiberality—to maintain their view of themselves as masterful and ‘good’ actors in the world” (170). They also, according to Povinelli, wish to be reassured that no lasting harm has been caused by settler colonization—that is the reason for the emphasis on Indigenous traditionalism in processes of recognition (170).
In her conclusion, Bell writes, “As currently enacted, relations of recognition between settler and indigenous peoples remain asymmetrical, and legal systems only minimally pluralistic. At the heart of the difficulties involved lies the unwillingness and/or inability of the settler societies to recognize indigenous sovereignty/self-determination” (171). The Settler “desire for mastery, the expectation of always being in charge, thwarts and truncates moves to engage with indigenous communities as sovereign agents” (171). Perhaps this expectation is the root of the “settler futurity” which Eve Tuck and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández argue must be replaced by Indigenous futurity? I’m not sure. In any case, “[t]he desire for finality in settlements evidences the persistence of this desire, and also the failure to grasp the reality that the entanglement of settler and indigenous lives means that a final settlement can never come” (171). Committing “to an ongoing relationship—and therefore ongoing negotiation and revisiting of the grounds of relationship—is both more realistic and supportive of the project of decolonization” (171). In addition, Bell contends, “relations of recognition are about more than knowledge, judgement and rights” (171). Identity is “never purely rational or epistemological,” and calls that it be those things—like Taylor’s—are a problem (171). “Ethics and obligation are displaced in the practices of recognition, but resurface in the settler desire for redemption,” which means (according to Povinelli) that “indigenous individuals and communities bear the effects of this displacement in the demands that they meet the standards of settler judgement” (171). Legal institutions need to take responsibility for creating a meeting place with Indigenous law, which “points to obligation and commitment to relationship,” but they also need to acknowledge the limits of the common law, which “both points to the abandonment of the need for mastery and to the acceptance of an ‘outside’ of the common law, a space in which indigenous law exists and where the two systems of law might meet” (172). “Effectively, settler insistence on the universal applicability of their worldview, their way of life, their legal and political systems, is the problem blocking relations of equality and recognition between indigenous and settler peoples,” Bell concludes. “The practice of recognition needs to be underpinned by a shift in the self-understanding and orientation to relation of the settler subject” (172). The politics of recognition, in other words, needs to be “shadowed by ethics,” and it is to ethics that Bell turns in her next chapter (172).
Bell’s final chapter, “Ethical Obligation and Relationality,” aims to respond to James Tully’s question: “How can a non-Aboriginal person, after centuries of appropriation and destruction of Indigenous civilizations, free himself or herself from deeply ingrained, imperious habits of thought and behaviour and approach this [indigenous] symbol in the appropriate way?” (qtd. 173). That’s an important question, one my own work asks. How can we free ourselves from “ways of thinking and acting that are our inheritance from the centuries of colonial modernity?” (173). Bell’s focus in this chapter is “the responses and responsibilities of settler subjects as individual actors” (173). “What can each of us do?” she asks. “How can we re-think our relationships with indigenous people—individually and collectively—and how can we live those relationships in ways that respect indigenous autonomous personhood and ways of being and knowing?” (173). Her argument is “that the way to begin this task of re-imagining our/settler relationships with indigenous people(s) is through attention to the ethical dimensions of those relationships,” and “attention to our ethical obligations can interrupt our will to mastery and certainty, and open settler subjects to the possibilities of relations of mutuality rather than domination” (173-74). She acknowledges that it is not easy to abandon the desire to be in control, but nonetheless we must accept “that our ability to control is limited . . . and that always being in control points to injustice” (174). “The challenge is to recognize our limits, rather than to deny them and live with a destructive fantasy of our abilities to always be in command and the possibilities of complete, unfettered understanding and judgement,” Bell continues. “To do so, we need to attend to the ethical dimensions of our relations with others, as well as the political and epistemological” (174).
Ethics, Bell writes, “is the domain in which narrow calculations of individual and collective ‘interests’ are trumped by the place of obligation and responsibility in human relations,” rather than “a set of fixed moral prescriptions that guide behaviour” (174). She intends to argue for “the value of Emmanuel Lévinas’s theory of ethics in providing guidance as to how we might interrupt relations of domination” (174). Lévinas “reminds us that our response-ability to others can involve relations of care and obligation, rather than violence and domination,” and the other “‘interrupts’ the settled horizons of the self and ‘puts the self into question’” (174). This may sound threatening, but she intends to argue that such questioning has a positive value for Settlers. “Further, the ethical obligation offers some guidance to action in our relations with others, although this guidance is marked by openness and uncertainty,” she continues:
For Lévinas, we can never fully live up to or discharge the obligations of ethics. These obligations are never over. Nor is there any prescription for ethical action that can ensure our goodness and the justice of our social relations. Rather, ethics and politics are distinct (but also crucially connected) spheres of intersubjective relations. Thus ethics cannot prescribe our political (and social) engagements with others. (174-75)
For that reason, some argue that ethics as Lévinas describes them are useless to political life, but Bell agrees with Derrida’s argument about “the value of the gap or ‘hiatus’ between ethics and politics in Lévinas’s philosophy” (175). For her, the crucial gap is between identity politics and ethics (175).
“Lévinas’s philosophy begins from an awareness of the violence of relations based on knowledge,” Bell writes. “To know the other is to reduce them to our existing categories of thought. Against the possibility of knowing the other, Lévinas insists on the centrality and singularity of the human other. For Lévinas, ethics is respect and care for this alterity, or unknowable difference, of the other” (176). Lévinas reverses Taylor’s argument by contending that, first of all, “respect is owed to others from the outset, in recognition of their singularity, rather than the end result of a process of learning and judging,” and secondly, that “our social engagements begin with an acknowledgement that human others necessarily escape our horizons of understanding” (176). “The alterity of the other comes from ‘beyond being,’ beyond our existing ontological categories,” such as “man,” “woman,” “Indian,” and so on (176).
To make alterity concrete, Lévinas describes our first encounter with someone else, using the terms “‘nakedness’ and ‘face’” (qtd. 176). “It is in the nakedness/face of the other that their unknowable difference is signified,” Bell writes. “In the face we see both humility and ‘height,’ both an appeal to our care and a challenge to our existing horizon of being. The human other ‘arrives’ at the juncture between horizontal and vertical planes, as if a bodily being such as ourselves and also absolutely other, from beyond our horizons of being and modes of understanding, and hence beyond our ability to fully ‘capture’” (176-77). Even though our subsequent relations with others will involve “the exchange of knowledge and the passing of judgements, ethical engagement with the unknowable difference, or alterity, of the other points beyond the limits of our capacity for understanding” (177). We can never know the other fully; we can never “categorize and understand others who from the outset also demand our respect as agents/subjects,” rather than as representatives of a category. Our response to the interruption of the alterity of the other could be violent or negligent, but it could also be “an ethical response of endless obligation and responsibility, an interruption of self-certainty and our settled horizons, a response that unsettles and decentres the self” (177).
Bell notes that there are dimensions to that obligation that “require unpacking” (177). First, “the demand of the other is itself the foundation of subjectivity”—the “I” is constructed through a response to the other (177-78). Second, “the alterity of the other is the catalyst for the development of social life” (178). “Lévinas seeks to unseat the autonomous individual of liberal philosophy, replacing it with an individualism founded in responsibility for the other,” she writes. “Thus the ethical obligation is an unpayable debt to the other form which no one can be excused, a debt for sociality itself” (178). For Lévinas, “ethics is ‘first philosophy’; the ethical dimension of our encounters with others is primary—both prior and most significant” (178). He contends that politics and identity come after ethics, and that while politics and ethics coexist, they do so the way that the act of speaking coexists with what is said (178-79). That metaphor describes his claim about the relation between ethics and politics: saying—ethics—always precedes what is said—politics (179). Similarly, there can be no identity without agency, which is a responsiveness to the other (179). For Lévinas, “all our engagements with others have an ethical dimension that we can either honour or ignore” (179).
For Lévinas, a response to the other that honours the other’s alterity would be “‘radical generosity,’” an openness that is not concerned with “any project of the self” (179). “Thus the ethical response is distinct from learning about or judging the other, or engaging in political dialogue and negotiation,” Bell writes. “It is an engagement outside of self-interest” (179). In addition, according to Lévinas “we owe this ethical obligation to all others equally,” since deciding who is worthy would be an interruption of ethics (180). “Lévinas sees ethical obligations as a profoundly unsettling appeal, that ‘shames’ and ‘persecutes’ the self and [is] a responsibility that can never be discharged,” Bell continues (180). Politics, on the other hand, “requires judgement between competing demands”—it is “the sphere of dialogical engagement around substantive issues where agreement is sought via reasoning” (180). It is also a relationship of “the many,” of more than a dyad of self and other (180). Some argue this means that Lévinas’s ethics are useless for political engagements, but Derrida suggests that “the gap between Lévinasian ethics and politics” is both “a break and a necessary connection” (180). “While the gap is ‘silent’ on the rules to be deduced from ethics that might inform political decisions, it ‘whispers’ of the necessity to deduce a politics from ethics,” Bell writes. “The connection between ethics and politics can provoke and incite us to better forms of political engagement, while stopping short of providing any prescriptions” (180). So, from that perspective, “the value of Lévinas’s ethics lies precisely in the break between ethics and politics,” a break which points to “their undetermined co-existence” (180). No system of justice is perfect, but since “indigenous peoples have their own systems and standards of justice . . . imposing either an indigenous or a settler system on all inevitably involves the creation of new injustices for some” (180-81). Thus, “there can be no universal prescription for justice” (181).
For Bell, Lévinas’s “assertion of the primacy of ethics over politics reminds us that the abandonment of self-interest, and the care for the other’s difference of the ethical moment, are what founds the desire for justice” (181). The “ethical relation” offers “a guide to justice,” and justice itself is “‘for the other’” (181). Moreover, “the ethical obligation demands of us an ongoing vigilance against the potential for injustice in any system of laws and a readiness to revise our political prescriptions” (181). “This insistence on the undecidability of politics, rather than a reason to dismiss Lévinasian ethics, is precisely its strength,” Bell writes. “It is the lack of prescription that provides the guard against totalization and domination. Political action is, in this view, risky and underdetermined; it is undecidability that keeps our political responses ‘unfinished’” (181). The break between ethics and politics requires that politics be self-reflexive, that each political decision stay open to further challenge on the basis of ethics (181). How might this work in practice? Bell asks (182). “To remember the link between ethics and politics in this way would seem to require a critical stance towards all political and philosophical positions, including, and especially, our own,” Bell notes. “But it does not mean the abandonment of politics. Rather it means holding politics in ‘generative tension’ with the ethical commitment to justice,” she states, citing James Clifford (182). The notion of “generative tension” suggests “the limitations of all our political attempts to secure justice and the limitations of all our systems of thought,” she continues. “What is then required, while pursuing knowledge and justie, is an ongoing vigilance, reflexivity and openness to the dangers of violence inflicted on others, all others—a preparedness to decentre one’s own views and assumptions” (182).
The rest of the chapter presents examples, organized around “three related themes—interrupting domination, welcoming otherness, and relations of co-existence” (182). The first theme “attends to what is required to interrupt the desire for mastery that is sedimented into the settler imaginary, and the ethical value that can arise from such interruption”; the second “provides exemplars of welcome to indigenous difference that offer guidance on orientations to difference that enable rather than block the work of ethics”; and the third “points to the new relations of co-existence between indigenous and settler communities that can arise from such ethical interruptions and acts of welcome” (182). “In each case,” Bell writes, “the emphasis is on the concrete ground of experience, bringing Lévinasian ethics down to earth and providing insights into its real productivity ‘on the ground’” (182).
Bell’s first example is the collaboration between Alison Jones (Pākehā) and Kuni Jenkins (Māori), teaching a course in feminist education (182-83). The Māori students were unimpressed by their first attempt, because “the interests of the Pākehā teacher and students continued to dominate the classroom. From their perspective, liberal dialogue and inclusion continued to favour the settler students’ interests” (183). The following year, Jones and Jenkins decided to split the class in two: one group of Māori, the other Pākehā (183). This time, the Māori students enjoyed the experience, while the Pākehā students “were resentful and alienated” and felt marginalized because another cultural framework was centred in their educational arrangements, and that they were being told they didn’t belong (183). Jones wrote two papers about the Pākehā responses, meditations on Settler discomfort, and she problematizes her desire to work with Māori colleagues (who eventually set up a separate Māori Education department at the university) “and the related liberal call for dialogue and unity” (184). That call, according to Jones, “is underpinned by a metaphor of space in which the indigenous subject is to be brought in from the margins so that her voice can be heard. However, the deconstructive focus of claims to indigeneity is in colonization; the aim is to dismantle colonial relations and the colonial identities of colonizer and colonized while maintaining the difference of indigeneity” (184).
But the problem is not, as Povinelli observes, a lack of Indigenous voice; instead, it is a lack of ability on the part of Settlers to hear that voice (184): “When faced with an indigenous teacher speaking in her own voice/language/terms, the Pāhekā students couldn’t listen and couldn’t hear what was being said. Rather, they wanted the indigenous students and teacher to speak in their voice/language and on their terms” (184). Jones concludes that “the Pāhekā desire for dialogue involves a powerful colonizing romance of unity with the colonized other. Where this desire is thwarted . . . the underlying desire for mastery and unfettered access to the other is exposed. ‘Unity,’ it turns out, means consumption, the reduction of difference, epistemological violence, domination” (184). In addition, the desire to be taught by an Indigenous instruction “is a desire for redemption from the morally culpable position of the dominating colonizer” (185). In other words, “[t]he desire for indigenous inclusion turns out to be the desire for reassurance of settler liberality and redemption from the injustices of the past” (185).
Jones “doesn’t want to end up paralysed or to completely give up on the possibility of cross-cultural dialogue,” but that “cross-cultural understanding needs to begin with dominant group members developing the ‘ears to hear,’ a learning that does not require the embodied presence of the indigenous other in the dialogical classroom—and in fact seems to be impossible in such a classroom” (185). Rather, Settlers “need to both learn about their own histories and privileges, and about the value of the limits of their ability to know the indigenous other” (185). Jones advocates for the adoption of a “‘politics of disappointment’ that includes a productive acceptance of ignorance of the other” (185). The pursuit “of learning about difference should be tempered by an acceptance that others can never finally be ‘known’ and that we must maintain a self-reflexive and open relationship to knowledge” (185-86). According to Bell, Jones’s writing (while it doesn’t refer to Lévinas) is about “openness and reflexivity”; she doesn’t dismiss her Pākehā students, but rather “identifies herself with them and uses their challenge to her pedagogy as an opportunity for self-reflection and learning” (186). “Pāhekā discomfort at Māori autonomy” became, for Jones, an opportunity “for new learning about the white/settler/liberal settler relationships with indigenous others,” Bell continues. “And these suggestions—new learning about the inevitable complicity of the settler self, the ‘politics of disappointment’ and the ‘productivity of ignorance’—themselves echo Lévinas’s arguments for the responsibility ofd the self and the need for non-totalizing orientations to the possibilities of politics and knowledge” (186). I know that at some point in the last couple of years I’ve read at least one of Jones’s articles on this experience, but Bell’s summary has convinced me to return to those texts.
However, Bell tells us that Jones isn’t the only one to develop “such insights into the changes required of settler subjects committed to decolonization and transformed relationships with indigenous peoples” (186). Molly Blyth writes about “decolonizing pedagogy with indigenous Canadian students,” David Moore discusses “the practice of literary criticism and the ethics of reading in the face of ‘silences’ within Native American literature,” and Deborah Rose Bird argues for an “‘open anthropology’ that can include accounts of other-than-rational knowledge-based learning and transformations that occur in anthropologists’ relationships with cultural others” (186-87). Blyth, a Settler who found herself teaching Indigenous literature to Indigenous students, writes about “the ‘destabilizing’ experience of teaching in situations where she is the only white Canadian, or where white Canadians are a minority,” and notes that she finds herself in a “contradictory position” where “she is at once the ‘expert’ and also ‘outside the circles of cultural knowledge within these rooms’” (187). She learns about the importance of humility about her ability to master the texts she teaches (187). And humility is not easy, particularly for a university teacher who is called upon to know and to be in authority (187). She describes herself as “the ‘tool of the enemy’ that the students used for their own ends” (187). Other factors affected the work: she didn’t teach in a standard classroom, for instance (188). Her “lack of mastery in these pedagogical relations” and her “repeated passivity” act “as the necessary welcome” that left space for her Indigenous students (188).
David Moore, a Settler who reads Native American literature, “points to the limits of the knowledge of the white reader/subject,” and “the place of silence around aspects of indigenous knowledge within Native American literature” (188). He advocates for “an orientation of ‘unreasonable fallibility’ in approaching Native American literature, a concept that invokes both non-rational modes of engagement and awareness of the limits of settler ability to access indigenous knowledge in truth” (188). He also calls for “a ‘critical ethics’ for academic interpretation of indigenous literature” which is attentive to the values of uncertainty, ignorance, lack of domination, and fallibility as welcome elements “‘in mode of communication that would tolerate the unknown in a continuing, pragmatic process’” (qtd. 188). The outcome of an attention to “‘positive silence’” is, for Moore, “‘radical understanding’” of difference (188-89).
Deborah Bird Rose’s work “intertwines a concern with the ethics of relationships between humans and the environment and the ethics of indigenous-settler relations” (189). She writes about the need for an “‘open anthropology’ that decentres epistemology to foreground the ‘ethics of experience’” (189). In her essay, Rose describes her relationship with an Aboriginal friend and teacher, and her experiences after Jessie’s death, including experiences that are more-than-rational (189-90). Rose’s description of those experiences echoes “the orientation to alterity that Lévinas calls for—action without intention, responsiveness to unknowable difference,” and to “the transformative power of such experience, which she calls “‘threshold learning’” (190). As a result of those experiences, she became more aware of the silences in the academy, “in which to speak outside of rationality and knowledge is almost impossible” (190).
“The insights of each of these scholars reiterate and build on Jones’s arguments and connect with Lévinas’s philosophy,” Bell writes (190)—and I intend to read the texts she discusses in this chapter, including (I hesitate to say) Lévinas himself. “Like Jones,” she continues,
Blyth and Rose point to the inevitable complicity of the settler subject who is the “tool of the master” and “situated” by the histories they bring with them to the encounter with indigenous people. While the particular histories of settler complicity with colonial violence are not Lévinas’s concern, his insistence that we are all already obliged, we are all already responsible, and must act from this position, resonate easily with the situation of the settler subject. Each of the authors develops the theme of the limits of knowing in different ways, pointing to the need for humility, uncertainty, vulnerability in the face of indigenous peoples and knowledges, and the value of those limits. Paradoxically, there is much to be learnt from the acceptance of the limits of our capacity to know. Most importantly, abandonment of the expectation of knowledge as “product” as Moore puts it, shifts the focus of engagement to experience and non-rational modes of engagement and to relationship itself—Moore’s “truth as relationality,” Rose’s “methods for intersubjective encounter” and Jones’s “indigene-colonizer hyphen.” This shift acts as a welcome to difference that leaves space for indigenous agency in Blyth’s classroom and can recognize it at work in indigenous literature. Finally, Rose in particular, as someone who has had decades of experience in relation to Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory, gives us an insight into the transformations of the self that can result from this openness to indigenous difference. The welcome to difference is productive for both indigenous and settler subjects, enabling new forms of action and relation. (190-91)
Sami scholar Rauna Kuokannen argues for the need “to replace the problem of ‘knowing the other’ with that of ‘learning to “see” the existence of epistemes that have long been rendered invisible’” (191). Kuokannen’s “important and radical point,” Bell continues,
is that indigenous epistemes co-exist with those of the west. Indigenous time exists alongside settler time. Indigenous relational ontologies and distinct temporalities, in which past and present are not divorced, co-exist with the realist ontology and linear temporality in which westerners continuously shed the past behind us striving relentlessly towards the future. The time of indigeneity co-exists with the time of capitalist modernity and crucially underpins indigenous modernities in the present. They are not the sign of the “primitive mind” superseded by our own sophisticated sciences and philosophies. (191)
I have a copy of Kuokannen’s book somewhere, and clearly I need to read it. And, frankly, this chapter of Bell’s book is the one I think I’ve been waiting to read; it’s a good thing I ended up buying this book, because I have a sense that I’ll be returning to it.
Bell also discusses the work of Te Kawehau Hoskins, which “provides a glimpse of the productive possibilities of such engaged, ethically informed relationships between indigenous and western/settler modernities” (192). Hoskins’s work brings a Lévinasian ethics to bear on arguments for decolonized Indigenous-Settler relations and “non-dominating forms of authority and relation that can support Māori desire to ‘live as Māori’ and provides insights into the ‘productivity’ of ethics in fostering new forms of engagement and possibilities for social life” (192). Hoskins’s PhD research was a case study of an urban school co-governed by a state-mandated Board of Trustees and a parallel Māori board; that school, Bell writes, “is an exciting and important example of what is possible when settler individuals and communities are able to interrupt their sedimented practices of mastery and control and welcome engagement with indigenous difference” (192). The co-governance structure, which has lasted 10 years, continues because of ethical relationships and a respect for autonomy (193). The intersection of ethics and politics at the school “produces concrete effects,” including “open relationships that valorize difference” and “the decentring of Pākehā/settler ways within the school” (193-94).
The emphasis on face-to-face relations at the school might seem to contradict Jones’s argument “that settler/non-indigenous peoples do not—and crucially cannot—require the embodied presence of the indigenous other to develop the ‘ears to hear’ the voice of indigenous difference,” but Bell points out that each author is pointing “to a distinct phase in the development of a relational imaginary on the part of settler subjects”:
Jones’s analysis points to the need for settler peoples to spend time getting to know themselves and their own histories, uncovering the sedimented practices of domination and the imaginary that accompanies them, before they can engage in a different kind of relationship with indigenous colleagues and communities. Similarly, indigenous communities need their own separate time and space to pursue their projects of recovery and development. (195)
For Bell, Lévinas’s concept of proximity helps to explain this apparent contradiction. Proximity is not a spatial category; rather, it “refers to an ethical . . . dimension to the relationship between self and other. It represents the ethical concern for the alterity of the other” (196). So, when “Jones accepts the desire of Māori for autonomous pedagogical and institutional spaces, she is not severing her relationship with Māori, or ‘washing her hands’ of any concern for them” (196). Instead, “that spatial—and crucially, epistemological—distancing is compaatible with the notion of ethical proximity. Respect for the alterity of the other, which is the characteristic of relations of proximity, involves an epistemological ‘distancing’” (196). A recognition of “the unknowability of alterity” is foundational to that respect (196). “Hence relations of proximity can balance the tensions of distancing and relationality required for a relational imaginary,” Bell continues. “On the one hand, they preserve the epistemological distance necessary for indigenous autonomy and disrupt the categories of settler epistemological domination. On the other hand, they ground a relation of ethical concern for the other. Proximity thus combines a form of ‘distance’ (epistemological) with a form of ‘closeness’ (concern)” (196).
In the chapter’s conclusion, Bell argues for the applicability of Lévinasian ethics “to the situation of settler subjects . . . in calling for the interruption of the sedimented practices of domination that accompany the everyday practices of knowing and judging” (196). Such practices may be deeply rooted, unconscious and invisible (to us), and they “will not be easily dislodged,” but she suggests that her examples suggests it is possible to do so (196). The scholars whose work she has considered “escape settler/western frameworks of knowledge and practice and need to be related in ways that honour that reality” (196). “For settler/western subjects, relating to the difference of indigenous ways of being and living is unsettling,” she continues. “It means giving up on the idea of unity, of a day when we will all be ‘one people.’ It is challenging and discomforting—and exciting” (196).
In her afterword, Bell cites Tully’s notion of “‘strange multiplicity’” (qtd. 198) “as a condition of co-existence with others” (198). “We need to give up seeking agreement at the level of principle and seek situated, local agreements over particular issues, where the different groups involved may come to agreement for completely different reasons, but agree on the particular at hand nonetheless,” she writes (198). Then, she turns to the idea that we don’t understand the effects of the “tendencies of the settler imaginary to equate indigenous ways of being and knowing with the past” (199). “The settler imaginary,” she continues, “is also a liberal imaginary and the double-sided nature of liberalism is worth focusing on” (199). On the one hand, the positive aspects of liberalism has made CANZUS countries “world leaders in recognizing indigenous rights”—really?—but the commitment to individual equality that is central to liberalism arguably led those states to shy away from signing onto the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples because that declaration arguably “demanded that they prioritize indigenous rights over those of other citizens” (199). “On the other hand, liberalism involves beliefs in universalism, progress and individualism, all of which have been powerful stumbling blocks in relating to indigenous difference,” Bell continues (199).
Finally, she turns to identity theories and the way her discussion of these “has highlighted a range of strategies of resistance—and domination—that characterize what is known as ‘identity politics’” (199). “For indigenous peoples, maintaining a distinct identity that marks indigenous communities out from the surrounding society is crucial,” she writes. “For settler peoples also, identity politics are crucial to their claims to being and belonging” (199). But the project of Settlers becoming Indigenous is impossible (199). “Instead, acceptance of indigenous autonomy is the first step in unsettling the settler imaginary and moving towards a new, relational imaginary,” Bell states. “Rather than focus on an end to contestation and a final achievement of unity that will never come, a focus on the messy reality of relationality is more productive and a necessary step towards decolonization” (199-200). That “orientation to relationship” features “a shift in attitude to learning about indigenous difference,” she continues. “The settler propensity to accumulate knowledge to then mould into a fantastical image of indigenous authenticity and wield as a weapon of domination need to be replaced by an understanding that indigenous peoples, like all peoples, can never be finally ‘known’” (200). Indigenous peoples deserve the same freedom Settlers have “to change, to be contradictory, to be fully, annoyingly and fascinatingly human” (200). That freedom “is a necessary first step in a re-orientation to relation, to attending to the relationship that lies between (joining and separating) settler and indigenous modernities” (200).
Bell’s book is important for my work, particularly her descriptions of the settler imaginary and the relational imaginary. I’m glad I read it. It’s going to take some time—and more certainly reading—to come to terms with her arguments and to begin to formulate clearer responses to them. I do wonder about her use of Lévinas when there are Indigenous thinkers on relationality who could be brought alongside the French philosopher, but perhaps her reluctance to discuss those thinkers together is part of her notion (through Lévinas) of proximity. I’m not sure. I will have to think more about that point. In any case, completing Bell’s book feels like a step forward in my research.
Bell, Avril. Relating Indigenous and Settler Identities: Beyond Domination, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Tuck, Eve, and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández. “Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler Futurity.” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, vol. 29, no. 1, 2013, pp. 72-89.