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  • Settling Scores: Claiming Ground for Native and Indigenous Critique in the Americas
  • Ramzi Fawaz
Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. 320 pp.

The 1989 independent film Powwow Highway stands out as a unique contribution to the American road movie. The film tells the story of two Cheyenne tribesmen—the portly and naïve Philbert, a whimsical dreamer committed to the stories of his ancestors, and the world-weary Buddy Red Bow, a dedicated American Indian Movement freedom fighter and member of his tribal council—as they drive from their reservation in Lame Deer, Montana to Santa Fe, where Buddy’s sister has been arrested on false charges of drug trafficking. While Buddy frets over his sister’s uncertain fate, Philbert rescripts their adventure as a spirit journey, imagining their run-down car as a war pony guided by the Cheyenne’s trickster god, Lightcloud. During their trek Philbert stops to visit “Sweet Butte,” a native sacred ground, participate in a Cheyenne powwow, and finally, pay homage to his ancestors at Fort Robinson, a historical site commemorating the deaths of the more than 150 Cheyenne who fled Oklahoma in 1878 in search of their original homelands. In this way, Powwow Highway places Native Americans in the driver’s seat of the road movie, and it sets native identity on the move as it travels through the very lands upon which [End Page 257] native peoples continue to reside even as they are surrounded by the war machine of the US empire.

This vision of native and indigenous identity on the move, both literally and figuratively in transit along the routes of colonialism, defines the analytical framework of Jodi A. Byrd’s masterful study, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. The Transit of Empire offers a cultural and political genealogy of the ways in which “Indianness” has functioned as the key concept through which the US empire has propelled itself across the Americas since the Age of Exploration. Like Philbert’s memories of a Native American past manifesting itself in the interstices of a post-industrial present, so too Byrd’s genealogy offers readers a series of mnemonic reminders of the ways in which native history, often defined by genocides, broken treaties, and struggles for political and social survival, echo through to the present day. In so doing, The Transit of Empire tracks the movement of settler colonialism in late 20th and 21st century conceptualizations of the Indian, while delivering a compelling charge to contemporary cultural and postcolonial theory to acknowledge and actively think through the existence of native peoples and their continued manipulation and historical erasure by the seemingly progressive ideology of American liberal multiculturalism.

Byrd deploys the framework of transit to describe two related, yet seemingly incommensurate movements: the literal transit of the European and American empires across the globe since the Enlightenment, as well as the mobile and shifting meanings of indigenous identity as native peoples have evolved to keep pace with mutations in the political and social operations of colonialism. In highlighting the concurrent movements of colonialism and indigeneity, Byrd seeks to redress a common elision in postcolonial studies and the study of the US empire in American Studies more broadly. This elision is defined by the recurrent habit of displacing indigenous people within a historical past-tense, in which their destruction by the operations of colonialism is seen as a horrific and regrettable event, yet with no direct ramifications in the present. Byrd’s project then, is both recuperative—identifying and making present native and indigenous subjectivity within contemporary theoretical, political, and cultural thought—and generative—developing a theoretical framework through which indigeneity might become an avenue for a critique of the operations of liberal multiculturalism. [End Page 258]

Recent interventions in cultural and political theory, particularly work in queer and disability studies, have trained their critical eye at the underlying ideological assumptions of liberal multiculturalism, including its patronizing response to continued forms of structural inequality and its maintenance of a white, middle-class mainstream norm as the measure of social success in US society. In The Transit of Empire, Byrd reveals an...


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