- Contesting the Cartography of Sovereignty: Rifkin’s Erotics of Sovereignty
Mark Rifkin’s Erotics of Sovereignty offers a rich and thoughtful exploration of an alternative approach to thinking about Native sovereignty in the United States. Rather than draw on the well-trodden literatures of formal legal and political theory, he explores the limits and potentialities of sovereignty through the poetry and fiction of four contemporary queer Native authors – Qwo-Li Driskill (Cherokee), Deborah Miranda (Esselen), Greg Sarris (Graton Ranchería), and Chrystos (Menominee). Rifkin postulates that such an approach provokes important questions about what and who counts in conversations about sovereignty. Where official US state policy centralises formal discourses of self-governance that offer a limited and stifling range of categories which Native individuals and communities are expected to conform to, Rifkin argues that queer Native writing contests those categories. This happens as these queer writers render public and collective what are consistently characterised as private and individualised legacies of colonialism. He argues that these authors illuminate the limits of settler state sanctioned ‘politics’ that preclude considerations of how historical and on-going practices of genocide and land appropriation are inscribed in everyday life. This poetry and fiction, Rifkin claims, reasserts the importance of individual and collective feeling in discussions and negotiations about Native sovereignty in the contemporary United States. In so doing, these authors challenge the cartography of sovereignty as laid out by the settler state.
Rifkin’s use of ‘erotics’ is inspired by Qwo-Li Driskill’s concept of the ‘Sovereign Erotic’ (2004). For Driskill, a Sovereign Erotic speaks to ‘an erotic wholeness healed and/or healing from the historical trauma that First Nations people continue to survive, rooted within the histories, traditions, and resistance struggles of our nations’ (Driskill 51). Here, Rifkin introduces Driskill’s concept to draw attention to the crucial role of bodily and emotional sensations that make up Native identity but are so often overlooked in official discussions about sovereignty. Focusing on the erotics of sovereignty attends to a need for thinking about the role of ‘embodied and emotional wholeness’ (27) in framing and negotiating sovereignty that challenges official state policy and its monopoly on what properly constitutes ‘politics’. However, as mentioned above, this rehabilitation of erotics as a frame from which to think about sovereignty is not an individualised, private affair. Rather, Rifkin argues it is a crucial element of collective de-colonization because it confronts the on-going legacies of settler state logics that continue to organise and define native individuals and communities through colonial and patriarchal formations. Rifkin claims that these queer authors offer vital insights into how these logics are perpetuated through colonial legacies of personhood and community based on property, procreation, and heteronormative family formations.
Rifkin first explores the work of Driskill and the book of poetry Walking with Ghosts (2005). He demonstrates how Driskill’s queer re-writing of Cherokee identity disrupts essentialised discourses of Native selfhood based on settler logics that demand biological and procreative categorization. Driskill does this by writing narratives of queer reproductivity and adoptive belonging into the text. Rifkin argues that by importing transgendered images of bodies and suggesting re-naming as a different form of birthing, Driskill moves away from ‘the conjugally centered procreative imaginary that literalizes the sex/gender system, opening up possibilities for gender other than the heterosexual imaginary of racial bloodedness’ (67). Rifkin argues that such a contestation has vital contemporary relevance, not only for disputing official state discourses on Native identity, but also for official tribal definitions that pivot on ‘the genetic transmission of racial being’ (46). This has particular relevance in the context of the Cherokee Nation’s recent banning of same-sex marriage and denial of citizenship to the Cherokee Freedman -descendants of those who were formerly held as slaves in the Cherokee Nation.
Moreover, Driskill refuses to allow the violent legacies of colonialism be relegated to a bygone past. In order to ‘literalize’ the way in which this...