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This forum is conceived as a broad consideration of the methodological and theoretical challenges sovereignty presents to nineteenth and twentieth century studies, especially when paired with the concept of indigeneity. Participants include Frederick Hoxie, Alyosha Goldstein, and Manu Vimalassery, and each of the scholars draw upon their own research and expertise in history, literature, American Indian, postcolonial and political studies to offer insights into how sovereignty functions as a political, legal, cultural, and governmental category of analysis across time. How has sovereignty functioned as a process of differentiation at the site of racialization, nationalization, and territorialization? What are some of the consequences of pinning indigenous critiques of colonialism to political sovereignty and how did sovereignty become such an important site of intervention in nineteenth century studies of empire? Ranging from late medieval European debates over sovereignty to twentieth-century American Indian activism that prioritized sovereignty and self-determination as constitutive elements of resistance, these essays reflect on the different sovereignty has made within histories of colonialism and imperialism while also pointing to possible new formations and new modes of inquiry that push beyond the bio- and geopolitics of conquest.


sovereignty, indigeneity, indigenous peoples, governmentality, American Indians, counter-sovereignty, colonialism, territoriality

At the intersections of political theory, literary studies, historiography, and critical race, indigenous, and queer studies, a concept such as sovereignty has a tense and unsettling provenance. From its origins in medieval monarchical systems of divine rule to its pinnacle in the nineteenth century with the rise of global empire to its presumed decline in the twenty-first century as multinational corporations unfetter the flow of capital, sovereignty has cohered peoples, solidified territories, and mobilized armies for defense, conquest, and/or profit. Along with words such as discipline, autonomy, self-determination, orientation, biopower, market, and boundary, sovereignty is deeply imbricated in histories of colonialism, genocide, exclusion, and slavery. Sovereignty is the force and rule of law whether it is bound to a spiritual deity, an individual, an entire population, or a piece of land. It is a spatial as well as a temporal concept that secures, polices, and controls through recognition and law. “The ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree,” Achille Mbembe writes, “in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.”1 And yet, at the same time and in the face of a growing body of critical work against sovereignty, indigenous studies scholars have continued to assert a fundamental and exceptional difference for indigenous sovereignty as the power and capacity to dictate selfhood in the face of settler colonialism and across four centuries of liberal enlightenment.

According to the field, indigenous sovereignty is essential, necessary, political, tied to place, and as Mark Rifkin argues, it uses erotics—“sensations of plea sure, desire, memory, wounding, and interrelation with others, the land, and ancestors—to allow for a commitment to [End Page 131] Indigenous collectivity and placemaking, an acknowledgement of the ways peoplehood takes shape within and through structures of feeling not officially deemed politic al.”2 Given that these conflicting definitions of sovereignty—state, self, necropolitical, erotic, indigenous, and so on—continue to proliferate and circulate within and around academic debates about the impediments nation-state formations pose to antiracist, queer, and anticolonial liberation, a central question emerges. How does sovereignty circulate as methodology within indigenous studies, and can the field’s insistence on difference stand in the face of the nationalistic, violent, and racist ends that sovereignty has justified?

Not to put too fi ne a point on it, sovereignty is the methodological cornerstone of American Indian and indigenous studies, and along with self-determination, the word provides the political and theoretical stakes of the work scholars do in their communities within and beyond the academy. From Robert Warrior’s field-defining articulation of intellectual sovereignty as a means to resituate academic knowledge production by and for indigenous communities, to Audra Simpson’s delineation of indigenous sovereignty as simultaneously tied to territory, narration, and history as well as indigenous refusal to consent to US and Canadian state sovereignties, one of the fundamental givens within American Indian and indigenous studies is that indigenous difference hinges upon the procedural sign of sovereignty as inherent, inalienable, recognizable, community-based, and righteous.3 As Warrior writes, “If our struggle is anything it is the struggle for sovereignty and if sovereignty is anything it is a way of life. That way of life is not a matter of defining a political ideology or having a detached discussion about the unifying structures and essences of American Indian traditions. It is a decision, a decision we make in our minds, in our hearts, and in our bodies to be sovereign and to find out what that means in the process.” 4 But, as Joanne Barker’s work cautions us, sovereignty is also historically contingent, and it “must be situated within the historical and cultural relationships in which it is articulated.” Sovereignty “carries the horrible stench of colonialism. It is incomplete, inaccurate, and troubled. But it has also been rearticulated to mean altogether different things by indigenous peoples.”5 As methodology and as genealogy, sovereignty, like indigeneity before it, remains both the constitutive site of subject formation within the dialectics of settler, arrivant, and native, and the grounds through which differentiation makes itself legible.

Such a claim is likely best made writ large, however. The methodological implications that I would like to sketch briefly here center on [End Page 132] how the concept has been evoked to demarcate indigenous difference exactly in those gaps between power and freedom, oppression and resistance, racial minority and colonized nation, in order to gesture toward the quandary that sovereignty leaves us all in. In indigenous studies, no matter in which century one locates the study, the notion of sovereignty, rather than race, has come to signify both site and consequence of indigeneity’s difference. Indeed, according to J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, it is “the conflation of race and indigeneity [that] makes articulating sovereignty claims more difficult” for Native Hawaiians and other indigenous peoples colonized by the United States.6 Territoriality, governance, nationhood, and sovereignty structure indigenous peoples’ association with the colonizing nation-state and, Kauanui continues, “make for radically different goals than those that emerge from the project of civil rights. Civil rights are, by definition, fundamentally about equality under the law: equal protection, equal access, and equal opportunity.”7 Methodologically, then, sovereignty serves as the means to render indigenous peoples visible within and against the discourses of racial inclusion and the adjudication of liberal multiculturalism. In the process of such differentiation, sovereignty serves to discipline indigenous studies, especially within the North American context, and becomes the site of justification for any comparative, transnational, or interdisciplinary study in the field. If indigeneity is in fact a transit that enables US empire to manifest itself globally, then sovereignty is the site at which that transit moves.

The insistence on an indigenous exception to sovereign rule that has come to define the field, however, runs the risk of eliding the deep and abiding structural inequities embedded within the notion that society and tradition must be defended—against encroachment, against colonialism, and against racialization. At this moment in history, when nation-state formations are the most criticized for their promissory evocation of rights, equality, and freedom that render citizens complicit in their own oppressions, the nineteenth century’s role in solidifying the teleological narratives of fulfillment—of self, of Manifest Destiny, of free markets—as part of imperial sovereign power looms as precedence and as antecedent. For Foucault, one of the primary innovations of the nineteenth century was “the acquisition of power over man insofar as man is a living being, that the biological came under State control, that there was at least a certain tendency that leads to what might be termed State control of the biological.” 8 Foucault’s explanation of biopolitics as a theory of right “to make live and let die” cohered at [End Page 133] a moment in time when the notion of population aggregated out of the multiplicity of selves and individuals. At the cusp between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Foucault asserts, biopolitics emerged as a new governance technology to grapple “with the population, as a problem that is at once scientific and political, as a biological problem and as power’s problem.”9 That problem, in the North American context, was the Indian, and the legal precedent for both removal and allotment at the beginning and end of the nineteenth century cohered the technologies of biopolitics that have defined the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The trilogy of Supreme Court cases that formed the basis for removal are at this point well known for declaring Indian land rights as occupancy rights, and for setting out the “domestic dependent nation” status of Indian tribes that has continued to displace federal Indian law into what Kevin Bruyneel has defined as “the third space of sovereignty.”10 Rather than rehearse here another reading of the implications that Chief Justice John Marshall’s use of the US Constitution had in situating Indian nations somewhere between a state and a foreign nation, what is significant about the ruling in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) for this discussion was the procedural elements of law that disciplined inhabitants of Indian tribes into a population over whom the United States had biopolitical control. “They occupy a territory to which we assert a title in de pen dent of their will,” Marshall wrote, “which must take effect in point of possession when their right of possession ceases. Meanwhile, they are in a state of pupilage. Their relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian.”11 Foucault, in marking the technologies of discipline over the body and the technologies of regulation over a population as the site of nineteenth-century innovations of sovereignty’s biopolitical imperative, does not address the colonization of American Indians within his study of war, sexuality, racism, and governance. However, one of the implications of indigenous critique is the centrality that indigenous sovereignty and its abrogation played in cohering the US nation-state’s articulation of its own right and power.

The double bind of sovereignty here is the one Marshall left us when he concluded his consideration of the merits of Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. “If it be true that the Cherokee Nation have rights, this is not the tribunal in which those rights are to be asserted. If it be true that wrongs have been inflicted, and that still greater are to be apprehended, this is not the tribunal which can redress the past or prevent the [End Page 134] future.”12 These two sentences, which posit Cherokee rights, Cherokee injury, and Cherokee futurity only to deny them all, are stunning in their recursive magnitude. Interpellating indigenous sovereignty as the grounds for its own existence while simultaneously deferring the possibility of indigenous sovereignty’s existence beyond the constraints of its own power, the US Supreme Court reveals the necessity of indigenous sovereignty as the original and authorizing condition for its own legitimacy. Meanwhile, indigenous sovereignty, left standing before the court both temporally and spatially, not only becomes the constitutive site of indigeneity’s difference within the colonial logics of the emergent US nation-state but remains mimetically trapped within the dialectics of recognition, regulation, and disciplinarity.

In the three essays that follow, the scholars gathered for this forum consider what sovereignty means for the study of the long nineteenth century and the centuries that followed. For Frederick E. Hoxie, sovereignty represents a challenge to the formation of the New Indian History, and it demands a reframing of how and for whom stories about the past are written. As methodology, Hoxie suggests that the term “sovereignty” might be rethought “not as a fixed legal status or condition, but as a category of analysis.” Manu Vimalassery takes sovereignty as a category of analysis and asks us to reframe US state sovereignty not as inherent to the rights of the people—defined as white settlers—but as a condition formed counter to “the prior and primary claims of Native peoples on the territories that the United States claims as its own.” Locating the formation and articulation of state sovereignty claims within a longer history of thirteenth-century Catholic philosophy, Vimalassery interrogates the “plenitude of power” through which John Marshall established US dominion over and against native presence and rights to land. Finally, Alyosha Goldstein considers the implications of sovereignty as a secularized process tied to its emergence and articulation of relations. Drawing on Jason Frank’s notion of “constituent moments,” Goldstein demonstrates how US assertions and reconfigurations of its own state power produce the methodological lens through which to understand the juridical fictions of extinguished indigenous sovereignty that enabled US settler colonialism and the rise of its overseas imperial interests at the turn of the twentieth century. By resituating indigenous sovereignty as an analytic for nineteenth-century studies, Goldstein argues that the variegated sovereignty assumed to be the result of late capitalism in the twenty-first century has been present all along in the colonial contest for control of the North American continent. [End Page 135]

Such genealogical connections between sovereignties that each of these essays considers elaborate how the United States recognizes and then refuses indigenous peoples the authority to assert their own will; whether named counter-sovereignty, graduated sovereignty, or indigenous sovereignty, the process of establishing political autonomy within the logics undergirding state dominion reveals the epistemological trap indigenous studies must chart in order to rearticulate alternatives to the biopolitical logics that have shaped our contemporary political struggles. Gayatri Spivak warns that we must maintain a “per sis tent critique of what we cannot not want” in the face of the “curious politics” that demand difference to authenticate any stance for or against the West.13 In the context of indigenous studies, we cannot not want sovereignty. However, we must remain vigilant as a matter of methodology to maintain the per sis tent critiques that will disrupt the hegemonies that have naturalized sovereignty as the only difference that matters.

Jodi A. Byrd
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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.


1. Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003): 11.

2. Mark Rifkin, The Erotics of Sovereignty: Queer Native Writing in the Era of Self-Determination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 39.

3. Audra Simpson, “Subjects of Sovereignty: Indigeneity, the Revenue Rule, and the Juridics of Failed Consent,” Law and Contemporary Problems 71 (Summer 2008): 194–95.

4. Robert Warrior, “Intellectual Sovereignty and the Struggle for an American Indian Future,” Wicazo Sa Review 8, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 18.

5. Joanne Barker, “For Whom Sovereignty Matters,” in Sovereignty Matters: Locations of Contestation and Possibility in Indigenous Struggles for Self-Determination, ed. Joanne Barker (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 26.

6. J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, “Colonialism in Equality: Hawaiian Sovereignty and the Question of U.S. Civil Rights,” South Atlantic Quarterly 107, no. 4 (Fall 2008): 637.

7. I bid., 636.

8. Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976, trans. David Macey, ed. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana (New York: Picador, 1997), 239–40.

9. Ibid., 245.

10. Kevin Bruyneel, Third Space of Sovereignty: The Postcolonial Politics of U.S.-Indigenous Relations (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

11. Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) 30 U.S. 1.

12. Ibid.

13. Gayatri Chakrovarty Spivak, The Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 110. Kandice Chuh in her talk “Improvising Enlightenment: Interdisciplinarity and the Sensus Communis” at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on September 23, 2013, argued that Spivak’s “cannot not want” is central to the collaborative analytics underpinning interdisciplinary studies. [End Page 136]

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