- Native Space: Geographic Strategies to Unsettle Settler Colonialism by Natchee Blu Barnd
Traveling through Cherokee, North Carolina, I snapped a picture of a street sign that read “Agency/School St.”—and under that a line I couldn’t read, written in the Cherokee orthography. While I couldn’t read the line, I knew the sign was part of a narrative of Indigeneity and settler colonialism, particularly given the eliminatory attitude both agencies and settler schools have had with regard to Indigenous languages. In Native Space: Geographic Strategies to Unsettle Settler Colonialism, Natchee Blu Barnd begins with the mystery of Native (or, in more cases, “Native”) street signs peppered across the United States in order to explore “how indigenous geographies persist within and confront the U.S. settler colonial nation” (1). Bringing together Indigenous geography, performance history, whiteness studies, and American Indian studies, Barnd examines how mundane and everyday articulations of space—such as street signs—can operate rhetorically to deconstruct or concretize the settler colonial state. In later chapters he turns his attention to Native art that seeks to unsettle settler colonial geographies. Across all sections of his analysis, Barnd is attentive to the ways that rhetorical objects tangibly act upon the spaces that they name, making clear that the articulation of Indigenous and settler geographies is never purely metaphorical.
For instance, in his quantitative investigation of Native street name clusters across the United States, Barnd finds that unlike ethnically coded street names such as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard or Cesar Chavez Boulevard, Native street name clusters overwhelmingly tend to produce white-majority neighborhoods. Barnd links this finding to Phil Deloria’s concept of playing Indian [End Page 79] and the way the idea of the Indian is deployed in order to consolidate settler colonial space and actively name land as a “utopic space of freedom” primed for white settlement (58). Rather than signal Native presence, these clusters serve to re-inscribe the purported inevitability of Native vanishment. This connection is particularly relevant within the study of the literature of the American West, as Barnd argues that the twentieth-century resurgence of Westerns and their themes of the western frontier ultimately framed Native peoples as the US minority easiest to incorporate into white culture with little material compromise. Decolonization would not be required if settlers could play Indian themselves.
Barnd notes that other geographical naming practices, however, do attempt to undo Native erasure with varying degrees of success. In Oregon a creek was renamed to honor the Indigenous peoples who lived there; this renaming accompanied an ecological restoration project that sought to rewild the area with indigenous plants. The restoration, however, precluded human interaction with the environment and in turn precluded the tangible presence of Native peoples and their relation with the land. This move toward de-colonization remained solely rhetorical, without resulting in any real change in the stewardship and use of the land. Reminiscent of Tuck and Yang’s 2012 assertion that decolonization is not a metaphor (in Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1), Barnd asks, “Where do words go, and what do we do with them?” (56).
In one of Barnd’s most engaging chapters, he explores the Kansas town of Satanta’s annual celebrations of their namesake, Set-tainte, a respected Kiowa leader and historical icon. While Satanta’s celebrations tend to glorify narratives of the Vanishing Indian, Barnd hesitates to disregard Satanta’s efforts as a white community’s settler colonial logics versus the legitimate celebrations of the actual Kiowas. Satanta, after all, does invite the Kiowas to their celebrations and has made attempts to include them in the celebrations, even if those attempts remain superficial. Barnd sees Satanta’s celebrations as a fledgling effort with the potential to become a genuine site of decolonization. This chapter is significant because Barnd identifies Satanta as a crossroads where [End Page 80] settler colonial logics, however ingrained, can begin to be tangibly unraveled.
In the final chapters of Native Space Barnd turns from the provocative mundane to art that is meant to...