Thursday, December 13, 2007

Indigenous Futures in a Not Yet Postcolonial World

In March 5-7 of next year, my department at UCSD will be hosting an important conference titled "Postcolonial Futures in a Not Yet Postcolonial World: Locating the Intersections of Ethnic, Indigenous and Postcolonial Studies." The conference is being organized by graduate students in Ethnic Studies, but is being supported by faculty, divisions and offices around the campus. I am on the planning committee and am incredibly excited about this conference! (pacha' i sanhilo' na link yanggen interesao hao pat malago hao muna'fanhalom abstract)

The drive behind this conference comes from a number of conflicts and discussions, all of which have worked to push our department and hopefully Ethnic Studies in general, in the direction of being more transnational and more intranational. This translates into more common academic terms as engaging more with indigenous and postcolonial studies. The push for our discipline to be more transnational comes from the desire to stop writing and positioning the United States as the center of the world, research and power.

For instance, even in the way in which the "rest of the world" is framed or even mentioned, we see the United States as being the center of it, whether in good or bad terms, it assumes that what happens here is more important, or defines everything else. In some ways, as a person interested in Guam's decolonization, I all too often decry and work to reveal the incredible power of the United States, because in a colony such as Guam, it is literally everywhere. But this elevation of the United States, doesn't simply mean its privileged status in making bad things happen, but also its passive status in defining the nature of the "rest of the world."

So for instance, one of the issues that I had hoped to avoid with this conference, was not to assume that "indigenous" means "native american" which is a tendency that so many people in the United States make. When I attended the First Indigenous Studies conference in Oklahoma earlier this year, such a conflict over the meaning of the term indigenous arose. The conference was attended by several hundred people, the majority of whom were Native American, although there were small, scattered groups of indigenous people from the Pacific, Latin America and Asia.

Although I was incredibly excited to be there, there were so many moments I felt like I didn't quite belong or that this space wasn't really meant for me, because "indigenous" for the conference didn't really seem to mean indigenous, but was just meant to stand in for Native American. A number of other participants especially from the Pacific felt the same way I did however, in terms of the conference not really being interested in their particular views, histories ideas and so on, and repeatedly asked the question to the organizers and to others, why did you say its an indigenous studies conference, if you meant Native American? Why should we have come all the way here, if you didn't plan on really including us? During the open meeting with the organizers, one Maori man, who had literally flown all the way from New Zealand, asked "what use is the category if you didn't mean it to expand your vision or your reach? What was the point of saying indigenous if you weren't really interested in using it beyond the United States?"

The committee this year, didn't make the same mistake, and were I'm sure careful to titled the conference "Native American and Indigenous Studies Conference." The conflict wasn't anything intentional, but was simply an natural assumption on the part of many of the Native American scholars that the plights, situations, histories, and thinking of indigenous people around the world, must be the same as or similar to those of Native Americans. In the ways in which these scholars attempted to be more transnational, or engage with the rest of the world, they did a poor job, because of how they assumed that everything out there, must be fundamentally like the way it is here. One of the disciplines which best captures the complexities, the idealism and the failures of the world out there is postcolonial studies.

But this mention of indigenous studies isn't coincidental, since the other direction of Ethnic Studies is precisely this, to engage more concretely with indigenous peoples, in particular in the United States.

One of the most persistent critiques of Ethnic Studies, from indigenous scholars as well as scholars whose work is not US based is its theoretical and content reliance upon the United States geographically and in terms of understanding of power and analysis. Because of this, the intellectual landscape of ethnic studies scholarship can seem like a wasteland, with nothing on the horizon to contest or write of, or which emanates power, but the United States nation-state. From this perspective, ethnic studies work can either give the impression of the United States being all powerful or all complicit, or make the only work possible that which seeks inclusion within its grasp.

Despite this critique, a large task of Ethnic Studies, since its inception has been the contestation of the constitution and making of the United States nation. Early on, this took the form of either articulating an independent important essence to the histories and cultures of ethnic groups or the unique and integral ways that these groups have helped “color” or develop this nation.

More recently, it has been involved in the much more difficult task of revealing the ghosts of the nation, its limits, its discontents, it contradictions, its necessary amnesias, its racial violence, etc. Doing the important critical work of revealing the heterogeneity of the nation, its weaknesses, its gaps, its impossibilities and its dependencies on different racialized bodies to constitute itself.

The transnational push in Ethnic Studies comes with the intent of making tangible the US nation-state’s complicity in bringing populations here, through war or mercantilism, economic pressure, etc. which upon arrival in this land, are supposed to signify both the benevolence of the United States, but also its irresistible appeal. It also serves to show how different imagined nations exist competing within the US nation, and consist of ties to other lands which stretch the boundaries, edges and centers of any nation across borders and oceans.

On the one hand, we must applaud these efforts to make the discipline more international, but what is often lost of forgotten is the need to also make the discipline intra-national. As Ethnic Studies works to connect the US nation to other nations, to displace the American centrism of its discipline, what is regularly left out is how the United States nation state is the home to a plethora of nations within nations. This political status is one which is supposedly better than that of states, yet whose occupants are treated like children you wouldn’t trust with sovereignty unless you were high.

Within the United States, the work of numerous Native American scholars has created a huge body of literature on the concept of nations within nations. First we have the histories of the private or state sponsored genocides, massacres and campaigns of ethnic cleansing which were enacted in response to both passive and active assertions of Native American sovereignty, which have pushed Native Americans into their current reservation system. There are genealogies and studies of the legal and juridical development, or the lists of decisions, precedents, and Congressional laws that have produced these nations. In addition to this, one must also include works on the infantilization and racilization of Native Americans over the past few centuries, in juridical and cultural terms which have created the racial commonsense, that these communities should and must exist as domestic dependent nations. And finally we find studies of what possibilities or hopes these nations can have given this status in terms of self-determination, political sovereignty and economic sustainability.

Furthermore, as Ethnic Studies pushes in this direction it must be careful to resist the urge to simply reduce the experiences, histories and aspirations of Native Americans to being similar to any other ethnic group, since both their histories and their contemporary positions place them in a very different and unique position. The importance of this point is the reason that it is so difficult to have a coherent conversation about it. To put it bluntly, the United States is a settler society and there is no national conversation taking place about what that means or what to do about that, other than "the past is the past" and "there is nothing that we can or should do about it." This conversation is so difficult to have because it implicates so many people in so many contemporary and historical injustices.

But, I should note here, that the indigenous studies component of the conference, and hopefully eventually the department isn't relegated to the United States alone. In the US, the need for the critique of Native Americans to be in Ethnic Studies is because of their crucial role in making sure that the United States is understood as a settler society, and that the existence of the nation-state of the United States is rightfull challenged because of the claims of indigenous people. But for this conference, we aren't interested in keeping the discussion just to the United States, because more and more today, indigenous peoples are connecting, working together and articulating themselves globally, often times in defiance of the very ways the modern world constructs or constricts them. And so as Ethnic Studies is becoming more transnational, it is important that we understand this gesture as not just being postcolonial, but potentially, in a more exciting way, being indigenous as well.

One more final notes before finishing. The goal of this conference then, is not to simply bring in the best postcolonial studies, ethnic studies or indigenous studies scholars. There are frankly plenty of conferences already that do this, and several of them are scheduled for next year. What we are instead looking to build is a space for a conversation amongst people in these fields who do their work with a careful awareness to each of these fields and not in isolation or blind antagonism with them.

If you are interested in attending the conference or submitting a paper or panel proposal for consideration, then please read the call for papers below or click on this link, Futures0308 to head to the conference website.



Locating the Intersections of Ethnic, Indigenous, and Postcolonial Studies

March 5-7, 2008
Ethnic Studies Department
University of California, San Diego

In September 2007, after twenty years of debate, the United Nations finally passed the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – a huge symbolic victory for indigenous peoples around the world who struggle under predatory and exploitative relationships with(in) existing nation-states. At the same moment, the UN was lumbering along in the 18th year of its impossible attempts to eradicate colonialism, with groups from around the world flocking to it to petition for the decolonization of their territories or to demand that their situations at least be recognized as "colonial."

Across all continents, indigenous and stateless peoples are struggling for and demanding various forms of sovereignty, as the recently decolonized world is sobering up from the learning of its limits and pratfalls. Postcolonial societies that were born of sometimes radical anti-colonial spirits, now appear to be taking on the role of the colonizer, often against the indigenous peoples that reside within their borders. In places such as Central and Latin America, a resurgence of Third World Leftist politics is being accompanied by a resurgence of indigenous populism. Meanwhile the recent arrests of sovereignty/environmental activists in New Zealand represents another instance where those from the 3rd and 4th worlds who dare to challenge the current make up of today's "postcolonial world" are branded as terrorists.

As scholars involved in critical ethnic studies engage with these ever more complex worlds, they are increasingly resorting to the lenses provided by postcolonial and indigenous studies. This engagement however is not without its limits or problems. As ethnic studies scholars seek to make their vision and scholarship more transnational and global, this push is nonetheless accompanied by gestures that, at the expense of indigenous and postcolonial frameworks, re-center the United States and reaffirm the solvency of its nation-state. In addition, despite their various commonalities, indigenous and postcolonial studies represent intellectual bodies of knowledge that are fundamentally divided over issues such as hybridity, sovereignty, nation, citizenship and subjectivity.

The purpose of this conference, then, is to create a space where scholars and activists engaged in these various projects, in various forms, can congregate to share ideas, hash out differences and move beyond caricatured understandings of each of these intellectual projects. It seeks to ask how, by putting ethnic, indigenous and postcolonial studies in conversation with each other, we may theorize new epistemologies that may better address the violences and injustices of the contemporary world.

To this end we solicit papers that address questions including, but in no way limited to, the following:

- What are the epistemological frameworks that inform postcolonial, ethnic and indigenous studies? What is their relationship to modernity and how do they challenge and/or complement each other?

- What constitutes the subject of postcolonial and ethnic studies? How does the construction of these subjectivities limit possible conversations with indigenous studies?

- What are the limitations and pitfalls of sovereignty as popularly envisioned? How do postcolonial and indigenous communities reaffirm or rearticulate sovereignty within their respective contexts?

- What are the different theories and strategies of decolonization as laid out by postcolonial and indigenous studies, and how do they inform each other?

- How does the political status of indigenous peoples complicate dominant discourses on immigration and citizenship? Moreover, with regards to settler nation-states such as the U.S., how does the "nations-within-nations" status of indigenous communities complicate the project of ethnic and transnational studies?

Abstracts must be submitted to:

250-word abstract, specifying if the proposal is for individual or roundtable presentations
Information including name, institutional affiliation, mailing address, telephone number, e-mail address

Deadline for Submission: January 7th, 2008

For more information please contact: Michael Lujan Bevacqua at or Rashné Limki at

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