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  • The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty by Aileen Moreton-Robinson
  • Maile Arvin
The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty, by Aileen Moreton-Robinson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. isbn 978-0-8166-9216-3, xxiv + 239 pages, notes, publication history, index. Cloth, us$94.50; paper, us$27.00.

The White Possessive is a powerful compilation, bringing together a decade of previously published writing by distinguished Indigenous Australian scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson (Goenpul). The book makes a persuasive case that critical indigenous studies, as a rising field encompassing scholarship by and about issues relevant to Indigenous peoples globally, should pay greater attention to race, and, specifically, the critique of whiteness. Moreton-Robinson argues that "Indigenous studies scholarship has rarely interrogated the mutual constitution of the possessiveness of patriarchal white sovereignty and racialization," despite the centrality of what she terms "white possessive logics" in the lives of Indigenous peoples in Canada, the United States, Hawai'i, New Zealand, and Australia (xiii). She defines "possessive logics" as a concept that marks "a mode of rationalization … underpinned by an excessive desire to invest in reproducing and reaffirming the nation-state's ownership, control and domination" over Indigenous lands and bodies (xii).

At issue is the contention, shared by Moreton-Robinson and other indigenous studies scholars like Chris Andersen, that too often the field has focused too much on defining Indigenous cultural difference, despite the fact that this has not lead to greater [End Page 238] appreciation of Indigenous peoples' knowledge by mainstream scholarship and has perpetuated fixed and monolithic ideals of Indigenous culture (xv). By shifting the focus from cultural difference to critiques of whiteness, Moreton-Robinson calls indigenous studies scholars to seek greater complexity in "analyzing both the conditions of our existence and the disciplinary knowledges that shape and produce Indigeneity" (xvii–xviii). Moreton-Robinson has clearly led the way in pursuing this work, beyond the writing included in this book. For example, she is the founding president of the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association, which holds international conferences and published a biannual open-access journal from 2005–2015.

The central argument of the book is that Australia, the United States, Canada, and New Zealand are nations that are constructed as naturally white possessions by white settlers. Since the very beginnings of white settler colonialism, this construction has been haunted by the ongoing existence of Indigenous sovereignty and relationality that connects Indigenous peoples to ancestral beings and the land. Moreton-Robinson also makes clear throughout the book that the possessive logics of whiteness are fundamentally patriarchal and paternalistic. This intersectional focus is continuous with her first book, Talkin' Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism (2000). Overall, she argues, this fiction of Australia (and other white nation-states) being patriarchal white possessions "takes a great deal of work" to maintain, and the possessive logics that prop up this colonial lie take a variety of forms (xi). The book surveys a number of different examples of how these logics operate, especially in law and popular narratives about the nation.

Many chapters focus on the ways these logics operate specifically in Australia, analyzing topics including, for example, Native title law (especially in relation to the seminal Mabo and Yorta Yorta decisions in chapters 5 and 6) and foundational national narratives stemming from Captain Cook's performative possession of Australia and declaration of terra nullius or empty land (chapter 8). Yet the book continuously makes more global connections and arguably seeks to push the field of indigenous studies in this more expansive direction as well. Other chapters focus on issues specific to the United States, namely the erasure of Native Americans and Native American sovereignty from much of the scholarly literature about whiteness in the United States (chapter 4), and on international issues like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (chapter 12), where she analyzes how and why the declaration was initially vetoed by Australia, the United States, New Zealand, and Canada but was later adopted.

The book is organized into three thematic parts, namely: "Owning Property," "Becoming Propertyless," and "Being Property," each comprising four chapters. These themes refer to what...