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  • Remapping the Family of NationsThe Geopolitics of Kinship in Hendrick Aupaumut's "A Short Narration"
  • Mark Rifkin (bio)

In the 1832 US Supreme Court case of Worcester v. Georgia, the majority found that treaties with Indian nations were no different from those with countries recognized as "foreign": "We have applied them to Indians, as we have applied them to the other nations of the earth. They are applied to all in the same sense" (560). This statement has been cited by many as a formal acknowledgment of Native sovereignty, as admitting that the United States has engaged with Native peoples as separate polities and that treaties are the mark and vehicle of that engagement. However, to what extent do treaties, and US policy writ large, seek to manage modes of political recognition in ways ultimately conducive to US aims and interests? In This is Not a Peace Pipe: Towards a Critical Indigenous Philosophy, Dale Turner notes, "there are intellectual landscapes that have been forced on Aboriginal peoples.… These intellectual traditions, stained by colonialism, have created discourses on property, ethics, political sovereignty, and justice that have subjugated, distorted, and marginalized Aboriginal ways of thinking" (88). Analyzing the force with which those "landscapes" are imposed on Native peoples and the particular ways they constrain Native self-representation begs the question of how Indigenous nations map their own geopolitics—both in terms of their sense of selfhood and their relations with other peoples.

The discursive and institutional landscape of federal Indian policy in the early to mid-nineteenth century required the imposition of centralized governance on Native peoples in order to facilitate consent to land cessions. The United States further attempted to [End Page 1] isolate peoples from each other on discretely delimited lands, disallowing shared or overlapping territory and routing intertribal relations through the United States and seeking to negotiate with each "tribe" individually in a contractual fashion without reference to the desires and interests of the peoples around them.1 The subject-positions produced by US policy, however, tended to have little connection to extant Native modes of collective decision-making, land tenure, or diplomacy. In particular, this process effaced traditional kinship systems operating within and among peoples, networks that militated against imperial strategies of insulation and translation. These systems served as more than merely a series of political metaphors (such as brotherhood), instead providing a conceptual framework for peoplehood and regional geopolitics.2 Encompassing yet far exceeding the issues of reproduction, childcare, and household formation usually grouped together in Anglo-American discourses of "family," kinship dynamics served as the basis for internal governance for numerous peoples in the Great Lakes region as well as generating the grammar for interactions among peoples. Put more precisely, kinship gave shape to the nexus of peoplehood—the contours and content of recognized Indigenous modes of collectivity and diplomacy. In presuming a liberal model of statehood as the basis for political identity and negotiation, one predicated on a representative government with jurisdictional authority over a clearly delimited territory, US Indian policy sought to create kinds of political subjectivity and geography that would reshape Native political economy in ways that lubricated US preemption claims and expedited white settlement. The ensuing conflict over what would constitute US-Indian politics, however, was disavowed by the United States in its portrayal of its action as fully predicated on Native assent, ignoring the persistent discrepancies between the official narration of Native identity and the formulations and formations of Indigenous peoples.

In "A Short Narration of My Last Journey to the Western Country" (1792), his account of his service as a US envoy to peoples in the Ohio region, Hendrick Aupaumut highlights the multivectored struggle over the contours of US-Indian affairs, illustrating [End Page 2] the complex ways kinship can serve as an idiom of governance and thereby challenging the organizing logics of US policy. A hereditary sachem, Aupaumut had been raised amid and trained in Euroamerican social life, including service in the Continental Army during the Revolution, in which he earned the title of "Captain," and in the 1780s, he led his people from western Massachusetts to Oneida territory to evade increasing forms of white intrusion and exploitation...


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