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The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty by Aileen Moreton-Robinson (review)
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Reviewed by
Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. 264pp.

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The story that settler societies like the United States, Canada, and Australia tell about themselves is that they are new, that they are beneficent, and that they are virtuous. They arrive at this story and this version of themselves through discourse and practices like law—because in law, and through law, they render justice. They are with law, they are governed by law, they are thus lawful, and, by extension, take on a “fair” character. These are not, “savage states” ruled by magic, pure belief, or unregulated emotionality. These states have institutions like law that regulate activity, guard against excess and abuse. Further, in each of these settler societies, there are democratic mechanisms in place whose functions guarantee that individuals and their property may be protected, so that goods may be distributed properly and so that they may prosper as well.

This is the skeletal and neutralized form of describing national story. This story requires “work,” in Moreton-Robinson’s words (xi), and to tell that story historically has been, indeed, an extraction and a conceit of epic proportions. But this is also labor, or work, that is required to maintain countries taken from native people as “white possessions” (xi). This labor has rendered time a matter to be governed (Bruyneel 2007) like land (hence its imagination as something “new”) but also is a grandiose project we find now, rendered in repair, but where it is recognized as such, re-instantiates a colonial relationship of dispossession (Coulthard 2014).

What lies beneath the story that nation-states tell themselves is a materiality of force, a fundamental effort of dispossession that has required violence (Blackhawk 2006), starvation (Daschuk 2013), and rape (Deer 2015 [End Page 1305] ) that instantiate a multitasked colonial genocide (Hinton, Woolford, and Benvenuto 2014). This is not for the purpose of destruction alone, but in the case of what is now the US, force has been deployed to to take land from indigenous peoples and extract labor from black bodies upon that dispossessed land. Just these two social facts in and of themselves up-end a story of either historical newness or of fundamental fairness. Furthermore, the fact of indigenous presence upon and care for land that predates, in fairly deep temporal terms, the presence of white or black people on lands such as North America, up-ends a story of newness in very profound ways. These places are actually ancient lands with deep histories, but are also sites of political life-making that are also, in that history, fundamentally international as these lands were and still are populated by ancient political orders that seem, somehow miraculously, perceived to not be present. And yet are (Simpson 2014). That ability to “not see,” to deny, to disavow, takes labor as well. So there is nothing new, neutral, or easy about the stories that settler states like to tell about themselves, or continue to tell about themselves. These nascent, embryonic settler societies were, in fact, a rushing cacophony (Byrd 2011) of violence, racial and civilizational presumption, and waves of force and push for territory, ideas, and bodies.

With The White Possessive, Aileen Moreton-Robinson has offered 12 analytical treatments of the overlapping matrices of race, history, and sovereignty in settler statecraft and subjectivity. In order to do so, she offers a sustained history of contextualizing ideas that govern this process of statecraft and lawmaking in Australia. This book is very much a political history of the present, but her reach is such that this work can move productively, to other settler contexts. But even more than a history of ideas, Moreton-Robinson has foregrounded the operations of law in specificities that tend to the ongoing processes of legalized degradation, reformation, and indigenous refusals and resistances that are hinged on the life of other political commitment, the shorthand of which is “Indigenous sovereignty.” In doing so, she foregrounds the logics of possession in tandem with the history of ideas that legitimate governance and authorize dispossession. Race is central to this analysis. In this is a deliberate move away from the...