- Theorizing Native Studies ed. by Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith
Theorizing Native Studies argues the importance of theory to Native studies and Native studies (inside and outside the academy) to theory. It captures—as Simpson and Smith note—an “earlier moment” of analyses “unfolding” in the field of Native studies and cross-pollinating with multiple forms of discourse (vii). It is suggestive of a broader contemplation that began before the chapters landed on the editors’ desks and which is set to yield more as the authors and their readers continue to teach, learn, research, write and theorize.
The collection considers why and how theory is important, with each author showcasing their own theories about theory. The primary debate of whether to theorize or not, whether theory is friend or foe to Native studies, is transcended by simply having the authors get on with the business of demonstrating the ways they deploy theory in service of their various works. And these are various works: various foci and loci, various disciplines and fields—English, politics and anthropology; film and media, cultural and gender studies; American Indian, Native American, First Nations and Pacific studies.
However, this variation does not hinder the development of patterns and themes. Indeed, woven through and with the element of variability across chapters are multiple thematic strands that criss-cross through the book as a whole, connecting and interconnecting the arguments and concerns of the individual essays. Sovereignty—tribal sovereignty, health sovereignty, sovereignty of choice—is but one of these. There are others—land, identity and representation among them. And the collection as a whole is fastened by the authors’ sharing of how they use theory to teach, explain, amplify, problematize and understand, a rudder guiding Native studies through the turbulent and often muddy waters of the academy.
Variation is perhaps a product of the “theoretical promiscuity” the editors urge. They encourage multiple Native studies’ engagements with multiple fields and disciplines, a strategic courting of intellectual partners willing to co-commit to the goals of decolonization and the end of settler colonialism (9-12). This framing is one of the book’s strengths—it offers a permissive platform for academic freedom that promotes possibility. It creates space, for example, for Teresia Teaiwa to openly embrace the several white males among those whose scholarly endeavours help propel her approach to Pacific studies, which pushes against assumptions that white men add little if any value to the field. It invites possibility to surround and fill Andrea Smith’s chapter, which highlights how Native studies (and Natives) are “ethnographically entrapped” in the academy. Smith attends to views that better incorporating and appreciating Native peoples will never achieve enough to truly transform and decolonize the academy. Rather, what projects in “intellectual sovereignty” (a Warrior-ism used elsewhere in the collection) require is thinking, theorizing, beyond settler colonialism, beyond privilege, and even beyond self.
Unsurprisingly, the book’s scope is wide. While sharing an interventionist agenda, the ten chapters range across historical and contemporary political terrains; make use of a variety of visual, textual and oral sources; and engage an array of theories. Christopher Bracken carefully treats the eighteenth-century writings of Mohegan Joseph Johnson, laying out an understanding of Native identities and Native Christianity which leaves behind analyses that hold Natives as singular, indivisible wholes, such as in Johnson’s “noncorrespondence” to his Self. Mishauna R. Goeman considers the work of Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie in her series of panels Photographic Memoirs of an Aboriginal Savant (Living on Occupied Land). Importantly, Goeman positions Tsinhnahjinnie the artist as theorist also, showing how Photographic Memoirs dislodges national mythologies that confine Natives in time and space, in service of settler colonialism, while restoring the United States as entirely Native territory.
The intellectual promiscuity the editors promote should not be misunderstood as an indiscriminate love-in; the authors are too discerning for that. Robert Nichols both uses and rattles social (settler) contract theory in his appraisal of political theory as settler colonialism. In the process he reveals antiracist critique, in settler colonial...