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Arriving on a Different Shore:
US Empire at Its Horizons

As settler-colonial studies makes inroads into the methodologies shaping the evolving field of global Indigenous studies, a curious thing has happened. Where once the local and the discrete marked the singularity of disciplined studies, there are now calls for trans- and inter-cultural, indigenous, minoritarian, and disciplinary analyses to account for the differences that subjectivities and subject positions make within the violences of racialization and colonization. In the context of the United States, the nation-state formation that makes the comparative scope of the essays gathered here cohere, histories of racialization and colonization have often been assumed to signify the same thing. Regardless of the specific label used to describe historical oppression, both are assumed to be the same systematic process of othering that leads to incarceration, dispossession, disenfranchisement, and alienation within and away from the larger sociopolitical communities reserved for only a select few.

Certainly, as the authors within this special issue can attest, what unifies the transoceanic and transcontinental scope of the United States’ fifty states is the violence through which those lands, along with the people who have inhabited them, have been captured within the larger political, economic, and cultural nomos of continental governmentality that has been under development since the discovery of the New World. Within these circuits of comparative logics that these essays have charted, then, are a number of embedded assumptions. First, that settler colonialism provides the conditions of possibility for encounters and that those encounters have the potential to be resistant. Second, that histories of militarism and incarceration in the United States build affective relationships [End Page 174] across those experiences, especially through the horizontal vectors that operate outside and beside the machinations of state-sponsored land grabs. Third, that multiculturalism collapses difference into smooth trajectories of inclusion and asylum that have depended upon narratives of “vanishing natives” and indigenous dispossession. And finally, that the quotidian experiences of exclusion have intimate implications that structure and suture desire, identification, and relationship with and across the divisions and fractures created through discrete and local experiences of oppressions.

By prioritizing sites of alternative contact between Asian Americans and the indigenous peoples whose lands now comprise the United States, including Hawai‘i and Alaska, the authors here seek to theorize those moments of convergence where specific histories of internment, labor, and dispossession collide with the realities of an ongoing colonialism. In the introduction, the editors of this special issue suggest that the methodological questions shaping their call for interrogating the “contrapuntal” (after Edward Said and Mary Louise Pratt) “contact zones” (14) of United States empire center upon “the move beyond the settler-indigenous binary to a more fruitful consideration of other forms of contact” (9). Proposing juxtaposition as “a hermeneutic of alternative contact,” Carpenter and Yoon demonstrate that such a methodology “allows us to arrange and test different meanings that occur when put side by side and to clear the space for subaltern voices perceived to be silent or foreclosed to peek through the cracks, between the lines of reportage and representation” (10). Such cacophonous simultaneity, one might be tempted to observe, helps scholars consider how the colonization of indigenous lands and peoples by the United States functions not so much as a binary between settlers and natives but through a series of recognitions and misrecognitions that coerce settlers, arrivants, and natives into service as proxies, agents, and at times beneficiaries, however undesired and unwanted, of the processes that have stripped land, lives, and nations away from the indigenous peoples who have always been here.

This imperative to juxtapose Asian Americans and Indigenous peoples in what is now the United States (and, though awkward and clumsy, this phrasing marks an important distinction) has antecedents, most notably in the rise of US-based ethnic studies that followed on the heels of the activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Self-determination, while providing the necessary rubrics for political action and activism focused on communities, for communities, and by communities, cohered minority groups into their discrete enclaves. Coalitional politics emerged to foster political alliances among and between struggles and many of the leaders of the American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers, Yellow Power, and La Raza, to name a few, saw in each other’s struggles, and indeed in the decolonizing globe, similar conflicts, possibilities, and allegiances. However, such genealogies may go much deeper, as Carpenter and Yoon demonstrate in their discussion of the juxtapositions of Chinese and American Indians in Sarah Winnemucca’s public speeches in the 1870s and 1880s and in the bricolage of newspaper stories about Black Hawk and Afong Moy before that in the 1830s. [End Page 175] Such moments provocatively reveal not only the dominant US society’s recursive tendency to juxtapose, transpose, and flatten representations of racialized and colonized others into a lexicon of shorthand to classify, control, and adjudicate, but also how racialized and colonized others depended upon such lexicons to make themselves legible in their own struggles to mobilize resistance and build solidarity across differences.

The existence of such fraught and conflicted histories within the trajectories of US empire demonstrates the pressing need for Indigenous studies, American studies, and other comparative area studies to develop methodologies to address the complexities of competing horizontal and vertical interactions produced through multiple histories of colonialisms and their resultant diasporas. In their introduction to American Quarterly’s 2010 special issue on indigeneity entitled “Alternative Contact: Indigeneity, Globalism, and American Studies,” Paul Lai and Lindsey Claire Smith propose “alternative contact” as “contact apart from narratives of ‘first contact’ between Native Americans and Europeans (including Euro-Americans)—among Indigenous Americans and other populations in the United States and around the world” (2010, 407–408). Seeking to bring Indigenous studies and its methodological interventions to the foreground of American Studies, Lai and Smith suggest that the time has come “to see Indians in contact with other non-Euro-Americans, to bracket for a moment the world-shattering consequences of ‘first contact,’” and that doing so “provides an unexpected quality that might shake loose new possibilities for critical, interpretative, and activist interventions. These new moments of alternative contact might then be turned back to deconstruct anew those narratives of first contact” (409). The six essays here do just that. They provide unexpected and alternative sites through which to consider how the colonization of indigenous peoples by the United States shapes and interpellates Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, and Americans of Japanese Ancestry into subjectivity as simultaneously ambivalent, liminal, and model minority citizens of the United States. Along the way, these essays offer gestures of hope for future alliances and affinities toward decolonial action by demonstrating how the juxtapositions of history and narrative disrupt easy assumptions about access, privilege, and power.

Setting aside possible concerns that the language of “encounter” and “contact”—first, alternative, horizontal, or otherwise—depends upon the colonizing narratives of the New World discovery moment that suddenly bring indigenous peoples into consideration at all, there is something important and necessary in decentering whiteness as the primary condition of possibility for apprehending the “logics of elimination” that Patrick Wolfe has defined as “a structure, not an event” (2006, 388). The essays in this volume, in taking up and centering possible horizontal interactions between Asian Americans and American Indians, Alaska Natives, and/or Native Hawaiians, provide insights into how settler colonialism, as a structure, depends upon the vertical at the site of governmentality, the juridical, and legal recognition, on the one hand, and the horizontal at the site of inclusion, affinity, and multicultural neoliberalism on the [End Page 176] other. Through strategies ranging from juxtaposition to comparison, each of the essays makes the case for the necessity of reframing analyses of US colonialism and imperialism through a wider lens than that provided by settler-colonial studies.

However, and to return to the particularities of language as a methodological tool, comparisons enabled through the assumptions of European traditions run the risk of replicating the very structures that such work seeks to dismantle. It becomes a question of perspicacity. In her essay, “Rethinking Comparativism,” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak observes that “comparison assumes a level playing field and the field is never level, if only in terms of the interest implicit in the perspective. It is, in other words, never a question of compare and contrast, but rather a matter of judging and choosing” (2009, 609). In the case of North America, Hawai‘i, and Alaska, that playing field is not only not level between Indigenous peoples and all others who have arrived from all over the world, it is, first and foremost, comprised of indigenous lands that remain indigenous lands regardless of the colonizing state’s superseding assertion of control over them. If there is a basis for comparison across diasporic, immigrant, and indigenous experiences, then such comparisons need to be mindful of how the interdisciplinary frameworks employed are shaped, argued, and pursued.

Each of the essays in this special issue provides possible avenues toward such comparative methodologies as they bridge history, literary studies, museum studies, and cultural studies to articulate the necessity of comparison as the ethical response to a US imperial globalization that has forced the world to move. From the horizontal juxtapositions of the introduction to the alternative contact that Lai, King, and Sheffer consider in their essays, from the mimetic dynamism of Fung’s analysis of Asian-Native coalitional politics around Alcatraz to the postcolonial liminality considered by Pegues in Shoki Kayamori’s frontier photography, these essays delve into the US national discourses that construct and represent Native and Asian bodies and lives through the competing logics of incorporation, assimilation, and exclusion. The strength of the essays is their ability to pierce the assumptions of settler colonialism and to consider what happens to those who are, in Pegues’s words, “foreclosed of citizenship” and unable “to attain what Veracini names as ‘sovereign entitlement’” (91). Such melancholic loss of citizenship haunts many of the essays as they explore the consequences of internment, exclusion, and disenfranchisement for Asian Americans and Indigenous peoples in the United States.

That loss, however, raises another specter—sovereignty—as a significant point of differentiation between indigenous peoples and arrivant populations caught up in and by US colonialism. It hovers throughout these comparative projects and at times troubles some of the optimism of comparison that these essays engage in their affective desires for affinity and coalitional politics at the site of friendship or shared oppression. Sovereignty and the concomitant treaty histories that accompany its trajectories within US federal Indian law serve as the point of distinction between Indigenous nations and the (non)citizens of [End Page 177] the colonizing nation-state. Without that political and legal history, Indigenous peoples’ experiences of oppression on the North American continent and into the Pacific might be made into every other experience. Equivalency, the assumption of a level playing field against which Spivak cautions, is, after all, a tool of colonialism. And without the context of the settlement and colonization of the New World, there would be no comparisons to make at all.

One of the questions, then, that emerges from the juxtapostions generated by these essays centers on how the trajectories of comparison might shift slightly if recentered through histories of treaties that were the operational sites of settler colonialism as both event and structure. To navigate what such a difference might make to the kinds of questions that emerge through bringing Asian-American and Indigenous studies into conversation, it might be useful to return to Karen Tei Yamashita’s 2010 novel I Hotel to consider how she uses creation stories to provide alternatives to US state-sponsored violence. “In the Japanese American version of the Turtle Island story,” Yamashita writes,

you got a crane and loon and muskrat that go searching for a plug of earth in a lake that turns out to be a dried-up desiccated lake called Tule Lake. You didn’t imagine that enemy non-aliens, or for that matter anyone native to that land, would be exiled to any real lake, not Walden Pond, not an orchard of apples, not a jewel in the desert, not a mountain with a heart. Still, you know that it is the people who occupy the space, whether a reservation or a concentration camp, who draw the water, plant the apples, build from the raw jewel, cause the heart to beat.

Within the intimacies of incarceration and war, Yamashita imagines that Japanese Americans are made native to the land through their exile because it can be made to parallel the dispossession of American Indians; within the course of the novel, Japanese Americans become the spiritual heirs of the Modoc Indians to whom Tule Lake belongs. Though they did not bring any land with them, the appropriation of a plug of earth remakes Turtle Island through Thoreau’s Walden and through Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which rendered Japanese Americans detainable war prisoners at centers such as Manzanar, Topaz, and Heart Mountain. Drawing upon the discourses of colonialism that abandoned the Modoc as Indian prisoners of war, Yamashita makes an equivalency in order to recover Japanese detainees not just as American citizens but as American Indians victimized by white settler colonialism.

For the Modocs, though, the lava beds at Tule Lake are home, not some site of a forced exile, fenced-in government camp, to which they were abandoned. It was to this place that Captain Jack led the Lost River Modoc to seek refuge after the US army invaded their homes on November 29, 1872. And the constellations of stories that collide in that space speak to the transpacific and transcontinental movements of Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, African Americans, indigenous peoples, and others from the nineteenth century to the present. According to Patricia Nelson Limerick, the events that led up to and beyond the military confrontation with the Modoc provide “an agonizing war story” [End Page 178] (2000, 36). It was a story that had its origins within years of interactions at the boundaries between Oregon and California, between the Modoc and Klamath, and between colonizer and colonized. Though there were a number of factors that led up to the conflict, not least among them was the continued encroachment of California miners, laborers, squatters, and farmers who sought their fortunes through the violation of Modoc homes. On February 14, 1864, the Modocs contacted Judge Elisha Steele, the man Abraham Lincoln had appointed to head Indian Affairs in Northern California in 1863 and who is credited with giving Kientpoos the name “Captain Jack,” in the hopes that he would be able to draft a treaty for them.1 Though he no longer had any authority and had been pushed out of the position by California senators who disliked him, Steele and Captain Jack prepared a document that would “arrange a settlement of all past difficulties among yourselves or with the whites” (Potter, Keam, and Steele 1999, 1390). It was a document that the United States refused in favor of a second treaty that forced the Modoc out of the Tule Lake region and onto a shared reservation with the Klamath in Oregon. For Captain Jack, however, the St. Valentine’s Day treaty was the one he had ratified and the only treaty he recognized as valid (Limerick 2000, 38).

According to historian Manu Vimalassery, “the language of the unratified treaty bears interest beyond its illumination of the power imbalance between Modocs and the US government” (2011, 1), and certainly the evocation of settlement as the resolution of conflict circulates provocatively in the treaty alongside the notion of “the unsettled country” evoked in its sixth article: “Indians, except in the unsettled country, or when hunting, shall not pack (carry) guns or bows and arrows; shall not bring them into the white settlement, except to get them repaired; and when you come into the settlements you shall leave your guns in camp” (Potter, Keam, and Steele 1999, 1390). The treaty, Vimalassery argues, provides insight into the racial and territorial logics that inform not just the delineation of “the unsettled country” as a variant on “Indian country” but the discourses of rights and safety within those places that have been “settled” by capitalism and labor (2011, 5). The first clause of Jack’s treaty provides for peace and friendship between “the Modoc and Klamath Indians, and John and Jim, of the Scott’s Valley and Hamburg Indians, and Josh and Jack, for the Shastas” and ensures that “any one Indian or squaw may travel through your country safely.” The second clause agrees that the tribes will “live on terms of friendship and peace with the white men, and the negroes and Chinamen living under white men’s laws.” The third clause asserts, “You shall not rob Chinamen of their gold, or rob their sluice boxes. . . . And you shall not sell to white men or others Indian children, either of your own tribe or of other tribes, and you shall not sell, except to Indians, any squaws, unless the person buying will go before the white man’s judge and marry the squaw sold him” (Potter, Keam, and Steele 1999, 1390). Though it is difficult to assess within the historical record how much agency Captain Jack had in negotiating the terms of the treaty he requested Steele draft for them, the treaty nonetheless provides documentary insights into the horizontal [End Page 179] affinities and violence at work within the structures of Northern Californian colonialism and Modoc resistance. The February 14, 1864, treaty attests to the fractures that black, Indian, sexual, and Chinese coolie indentureship, forced labor, and slavery presented to the emergent liberal biopolitics, which sought to secure safety, peace, profit, and liveability within settled and unsettled spaces. And it provides for racial rights at the exact moment the state is caught within a trajectory of extinguishing rights—Captain Jack will ultimately be tried and hung as a war criminal, African Americans will bear structural exclusions and Jim Crow lynchings, and the Chinese Exclusion Act will pass in 1882. However, as Vimalassery concludes, “racial rights, as recorded in the unratified treaty, can be understood as a means of incursion on Modoc territory. This, against quotidian and structural violence against Black and Chinese people in California” (2011, 5).

As settler colonialism continues to circulate within Indigenous studies as the site for critical intervention, the frameworks provided by the essays in this volume provide important additive analytics. Yamashita’s cathexis of inclusion not just to the United States, but to “native to the land” identity, depends upon a recognition and remembrance of the violence done to Indigenous peoples as the justification for rights and recognition within the nation-state. The ascendency of US empire continues to use the discourses of Indianness to fuel its drive for resources at the expense of life: both the recent hailing of Geronimo to denominate Osama bin Laden and the use of the 1873 Modoc Indian War Prisoners decision in John Yoo’s memos, which authorized the military to detain and torture those labeled “enemy combatants,” come to mind. In this context, scholars interested in how US globalization deploys equivalencies will need to account for the coerced complicities of empire that oppress all those who can be made “Indian” within the normative logics that continue to justify the occupation of Indigenous lands. Though settler colonialism provides one useful frame through which to critique the juridical and cultural logics of empire’s relationship to Indigenous nations, it also risks flattening historical processes. Meanwhile, the conflation of those processes which occur at the site of a transferable Indianness creates the possibility for colonialism to propagate itself through arrivants who affectively appropriate that Indianness to reconcile the violent exclusions they experience at the hands of empire. The challenge for alternative contact and the juxtaposition of horizontal trajectories is not to mistake an effect for a cause within the playing fields created by US empire.

Jodi A. Byrd

Jodi A. Byrd is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and Associate Professor of American Indian Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her articles have appeared in American Indian Quarterly, Cultural Studies Review, and Interventions, and she is the author of The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Empire (2011).


1. For more on the Modoc War, see Patricia Nelson Limerick’s Something in the Soil (2000), along with Keith A. Murray’s The Modocs and their War (1959) and R. David Edmunds, Frederick E. Hoxie, and Neal Salisbury’s The People: A History of North America (2007). [End Page 180]

Works Cited

Edmunds, R. David, Frederick E. Hoxie, and Neal Salisbury. 2007. The People: A History of North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Lai, Paul, and Lindsey Claire Smith. 2010. “Introduction.” American Quarterly 62.3 (September): 407–36.
Limerick, Patricia Nelson. 2000. Something in the Soil. New York: Norton.
Murray, Keith A. 1959. The Modocs and their War. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Potter, E. W., D. Keam, and E. S. Steele. 1999. “Agreement with the Modoc,” February 14, 1864, unratified. In Documents of American Indian Diplomacy: Treaties, Agreements, and Conventions 1775–1979, Volume Two, edited by Vine Deloria Jr. and Raymond J. DeMallie. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 2009. “Rethinking Comparativism.” New Literary History 40.3: 609–26.
Vimalassery, Manu. 2011. “‘The Unsettled Country’: Modocs and the Racial Terrain of the California Gold Rush.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, Sacramento, CA, May 19–21.
Wolfe, Patrick. 2006. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8.4 (December): 387–409.
Yamashita, Karen Tei. 2010. I Hotel. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press. [End Page 181]