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Notes on the State of Indigeneity; or Turning South Again

My subtitle deliberately echoes Houston Baker’s pivotal monograph, Turning South Again: Re-thinking Modernism, Re-reading Booker T, which—when it was first published in 2001—fundamentally altered the course of Southern studies. Beginning with a primal reorientation around the experiences of Black slavery and incarceration, the New Southern Studies went on to perform a sweeping reevaluation of its terms, tropes, subjects, and geographies. Arguably one of the more exciting developments (for me, at least) was the integration of Indigenous studies in southern spaces and histories, where Native groups were long presumed to be absent. Yet while unquestionably progressive, this reorienting and re-presencing work is also often doomed by its false assumptions; that is, Indigenous southern studies can function as a kind of necromancy, or a willed effort to resuscitate a cultural monolith that subsists only as an inversion of the terms and spaces of its detention. This challenge is not distinctive to southern studies but impedes the field of Indigenous studies more broadly, which is currently trapped in an analytic and ontological tautology wherein the terms of resurgence—including “Indigeneity” itself—are rooted in the very settler colonialist logics and landscapes that they seek to renounce. Just as Baker needed to turn South to make sense of the ongoing nightmare of racialized existence in America, Indigenous studies too would benefit from revisiting and revising the scenes of both Indians’ apparent expulsion and the iterative centrality of such false narratives within American modernity.

In his 1975 essay, “Caribbean Man in Space and Time”, Edward Kamau Braithwaite advanced a concept called “interstructure” to better dialogue between what he called the “inner” and “outer” plantations, to make room for appreciations of local creativity and energy alongside the more rigid, often binary analytics of their geographic and economic enclosures. As he saw it, scholarship on the “plantation system” was in danger of “becoming as much tool as tomb of the system that it seeks to understand and transform” (4). While his moment and project differ from that of contemporary Indigenous scholarship, and his focus was primarily Caribbean society, critics have begun to apply Brathwaite’s call to forensics of the US plantation and its outer and inner afterlives. An Indigenous studies response might have two primary objectives: first, to disentangle the “tools” from the “tombs” in Native studies broadly, where our logics of resurgence and sovereignty tend to be shackled recursively to the historical terms and structures that birthed them;[1] and second, to turn explicit attention to the plantation episteme itself, to trouble the entombed silences at the very epicenter of racial capitalism in the Americas as a pivot point for rethinking the fatal structures of Indigenous resurgence as well. And yet, I wonder: would we fashion new tools or more tombs?

Plantation Graveyard, 1860. Slave burying ground on a plantation in South Carolina. Stereograph, 1860.  
Fig. 1. Plantation graveyard, 1860. Slave burying ground on a plantation in South Carolina. Stereograph, 1860.

In the Red: Unsettling Southern Space

The plantation—as both a structure and a symbol—has driven ponderous wedges between Native and African American peoples. The word “plantation” itself was initially a cognate for “colony” and settlement; it was only during the eighteenth century that the term came primarily to denote the major chattel-holding agricultural dynasties throughout the Caribbean and the US South. This project became intimately yoked with the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal, which directly precipitated the coeval projects of territorial expansion and Indigenous dispossession in the early national period; the resulting plantation economy required Native eviction to nurture fledgling national ambitions and values and instigated what would become the permanently differential subjection of Indigenous and African subjects.  While intergroup alliances and racial mixing were and remain a historical fact, they have often given way to outsized fantasies of solidarity. This romance sours with our increasing understanding of the scale and virulence of Indigenous slaveholding and the poisonous interracial antagonisms bred by Jim Crow segregation. Scholars today remain troubled by the impasse between disparate dispossessive logics: Indians’ annihilation by eviction, on the one hand, and on the other, African Americans’ social death by chattel slavery. These are contiguous but finally divergent grounds for establishing white ascendancy, and they have lastingly polluted coalitional politics. As former American Studies Association president Roderick Ferguson puts it, drawing on his own family history as a mixed race southerner: “It was the project of white supremacy and capitalist property relations to institutionalize Indianness and Blackness as antagonists… even in the midst of intermarriage.” Such hallucinations about the “incommensurability of cultures” even in the face of their indissolubility is, as Timothy Morton remarks, “a symptom of the very imperialism from which one is trying to rescue thinking” (12).

Many scholars are doing the granular work to both identify and create more complex alignments across and within the crucible of settler colonialism and racial capitalism; but relatively few have attended to the obdurate apartheids of southern history, where the Indigenous narrative remains largely a parable of vicious extraction. Take, for instance, a scene in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad when two slavecatchers haul their human cargo west along the Cherokee Trail of Tears. One of the men memorializes “our red fathers” who sacrificed their territories to white men’s treaties and made their current journey easier and smoother—the road “tamped by little red feet”--and notes a cousin who “got lucky and won some Indian land in the lottery… grows corn” (208-9). The moment is almost unremarkable because it is so prosaic; Indian removal very literally paves the path to the monocultural economies of the plantation, and as Tiffany King puts it, “once [those] Native bodies are eliminated, they are removed from and no longer visible on the landscape of the plantation where slaves labor” (130-31).  This is a fiction, like the lottery that blesses whites with the fortune of bloodless inheritance, but it has proven a sturdy one; we know that not only did and do Indians remain in the region, as Indians, but that some even functioned as actors and agents within (not just levers for or victims of) plantation capitalism. Yet we return habitually to mystifications about Indians as innately anti-capitalist. As historian Ned Blackhawk puts it, “Indigenous lands and lives remain too often excised from histories of American capitalism which identify African American slavery… as ‘the foundational American institution’ … and the African slave trade [as] most important ‘drama of the last thousand years of human history’” (569).

 "Tennessee – Exodus" image of men on horseback
Fig. 2. The Underground Railroad, Season 1, Chapter 5: "Tennessee – Exodus" (Episode aired May 14, 2021), director Barry Jenkins https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8515560/mediaviewer/rm3306340609/ 

Southern literature has been substantially responsible for sustaining such lopsided narratives. But it is also perhaps a uniquely apt archive for detonating them as well, if we learn to better attend to its bracing admissions, elisions, and outright mystifications—the dense cross-hatching of regional and national narratives that require ritual repetition to sustain themselves. In this regard, we might turn back to southern modernist texts in particular, with their inherently skeptical postures in regard to what Charles Altieri calls the “deadly imaginary states that raised outmoded or fantasized conditions to the status of ideals,” even and including the plantation mythological complex. Consider the uncanny revelation offered by one of our most influential southern mythographers, William Faulkner, in his late novel Requiem for a Nun (1951). Perhaps best known for its now-famous line, uttered by the lawyer Gavin Stevens, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” Requiem offers a stunning version of the settler colonial histories underlying his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Faulkner uses a frame narrative about a Black woman on trial for infanticide in the 1930s in order to sketch a palimpsest: beneath and bleeding into the modern story is the foundational account of the settlement of his fictional world. Once a Chickasaw trading post, the county seat of Yoknapatawpha is born in an act of allegorical and redounding fraud: a lock is stolen from the county jail, and the town founders consider extorting remuneration from the federal government by recording the lost lock as the expense of “axle grease on the Indian account… To grease the wagons for Oklahoma’” (17). The phrase “on the Indian account” reads idiomatically as “on account of the Indians,” rendering the Indians themselves both causal and culpable for the compensatory fraud and for their own eviction—a kind of recursive compensation for white precarity. But the founders are persuaded to abandon the plot, and they bitterly mourn the missed opportunity, a loss “leaving in fact the whole race of man, as long as it endured, forever and irrevocably fifteen dollars deficit, fifteen dollars in the red” (29).

Such permanent, pervasive debt is an outsized consequence, to be sure, but it points up Faulkner’s expansive allegory about the coeval histories of the settler colonialism and plantation capitalism, which continue to bedevil his modern moment as well as our own. To be “in the red” is to be in debt, but in the immediate context of a racialized economy and the “Indian account,” the idiom intimates the devastating costs of a “freedom” that is really just a lockless jail—a dramatic inversion and mockery of America’s founding principles and the South’s particularly stark iterations, where the plantation accounts would render not just goods and property but human bodies as line items. And yet, despite the abundance of plantation ledgers and records in the archives, there are few comprehensive accounts of these histories that balance, that do not furiously conceal and omit what David Graeber called the “secret scandals” of modern capitalism, the arrestingly unfree conditions by which it has always reproduced itself.

This moment in Faulkner’s corpus is indeed remarkable for what it exposes but also for what it conceals; and it entreats us to wonder what other admissions and occlusions wait in the field of modernist representation and repudiation, what lexical and narratological vestiges and vacancies that have exacted such pernicious epistemological effects? It’s a problem not just of evidence but also application—as Blackhawk notes, history has always been theater, a centralizing performance of national themes and actors. Moving the aperture from center to margins, to the darkened wings and backstage play within settler colonial and racial capitalist histories, demands that we resist the easy antagonisms and ahistorical essentialisms that plague our own practice—in this case, the mobile, metastatic chaos of the plantation and its infinite afterlives, the very DNA of a national trauma that we collectively own.

Cover for a pack of postcards from Natchez, Mississippi, 1938. 
Fig. 3. Mississippi: Natchez. Cover for a pack of postcards from Natchez, Mississippi, 1938. 

Dismantle or Divest? Tool or Tomb?

Twenty years after Baker’s call to re-read modernism through the lens of Black dispossession, one with haunting and indelible afterlives, it’s time for a new wave of revisionary reading. In these reexaminations, we must be alert to the seductions of post-plantation, post-traumatic re-presencing in the wake of collective but differential loss. Somewhere in the interstices of the white settler, Black enslaved, and Indigenous erased is a morass of shared experience too intimate to reconstitute or to own outright. What might happen if we read Indigeneity back into both the archives and the afterlives of the plantation, not as absence but as lingering, haunting, instigating, disruptive interlopers, unpaid debts—lurking shadows, fickle ancestors, cruel masters and intimate kin alike—together inhabiting a primal grief that typifies the fraudulent transactions of the American condition, our first and only democratic birthright? Not Indians weeping and tamping dirt on the way to an Oklahoma vanishing point, but hoeing and harnessing and taking up space, running within and across and to a South in the making, and thereafter involved in every facet and function of the monocultural, exploitative economies unfurled across a broken and building nation. All sutured together, impossible to untangle.

These reorientations matter when land is still and always the primary medium through which humans’ proprietary and abusive relationship to nature and to sociality has been expressed and reified. It is also the site of Indigenous return and reclamation—a battleground both material and abstract, juridical, and analytic. Can we claim and inhabit land now in ways that are not territorial but, as Alyosha Goldstein, Jodi Byrd, and others ask, “as a source of relation with an agency of its own?” (11).  We might look to recent advances such as New Zealand’s granting of political rights to natural features, or the White Earth Band of Ojibwe’s tribal law granting wild rice its own enforceable legal rights to “flourish, regenerate, and evolve.” These are important measures, if largely symbolic ones, and they are complicated by very real, ongoing struggles over land-based claims to embodied, emplaced personhood. They are stymied, too, by obvious questions of who and where “Indians” actually are. After centuries of removal, migration, mixing, assimilation, and biopolitical elimination, Native peoples are everywhere and nowhere, exceptional and ordinary, in cities and suburbs, in bodies and bloodlines far from “home” and often in contested but coveted traces. Indeed, colonialist rubrics for recognition have achieved ontological solidity despite tribes’ and individuals’ dazzling differences in geographies, genealogies, and histories.

A protester's sign at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park, New York City. Photograph, October 2011.
Fig. 4. Occupy Wall Street, 2011. A protester's sign at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park, New York City. Photograph, October 2011. Full credit: Michael Morrah / Granger, NYC -- All Rights Reserved. 

We might brazenly acknowledge that “Indigeneity” as a monolith can be understood only as the afterbirth of colonialist processes and logics, headquartered in the sites and forms of reservation polities and tribal sovereignty, in blood quantum and DNA expeditions—exclusive modes of access and fetishized destinations, and concealments of more slippery knowledge that we struggle to assimilate. We must reckon with the fact that many coalitional efforts devolve ultimately into actual or alleged arrogations—another proprietary compulsion rising paradoxically out of the resistance impulse. This has happened most recently and vividly in Anthropocene conversations, where efforts to borrow from, celebrate, or dialogue with Indigenous knowledge and practices have frequently been criticized as yet more cultural extractions; and here too we are reminded, again, that the apocalyptic consequences of climate crisis provoked by racial capitalism are too divisively differential to give way to relational solutions, or to any kind of easy solidarities or coalitions.

So what can we do? There is, of course, inherent value in developing new analytics and circulating freshly relational concepts of land, kin, species, and belonging unmoored from the politics of possession, whether these bear real fruit or heal the planet and our communities any time soon. But in launching such movements, we need to more pragmatically attend to the terms and grammars of repudiation, so deeply enmeshed in the conditions of their making—our tombs, ones of our own fashioning, because we remain interred within the very structures we aim to demolish. Rather than invoking the cliché of the master’s tools here, I want to shift back to Brathwaite’s distinction between tool and tomb and suggest that we consider new instruments altogether. This is uncomfortable work, and it may involve humbling and unnerving forms of intimacy. But as Stuart Hall has urged, the way out of identity-based practices of combative critique might finally emerge from  mass political action that is material, attentive to the economies that define and delimit us all: not from private identarian bunkers, or even interracial alliances, but from a radical, leveling homogeneity of access, equity, and opportunity. “The real break,” Hall says, “comes not from inverting the model but from breaking free of its limiting terms, changing the frame.” Instead of trying to “conduct new struggles with ancient and decrepit weapons,” as Hall puts it, we need new ones. Perhaps we need to divest “Indigeneity” altogether in order to arrive at a truly new and generative landscape of deliverance.


[1] Scholars in Indigenous studies are rigorously disassembling the virulent logics of settler colonial “possession” as recursive—dependent on the devices of dispossession that make it legible (cf. Robert Nichols’s concept of the recursivity of possessive logics: as he explains, the very notion of “possession” is a consequence of—not a precondition for—“dispossession,” making theft the primary operation of creating and conceptualizing property). However, it is not just structural play to surmise that if the terms and logics of settler colonialism are to be dismantled, so too must the constitutive terms that animate so-called decolonial politics and theory. The process should be one not just of reversal or deconstruction but complete detonation; and I question whether such radical untethering is possible.