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  • Geo into Bio and Back Again, or Tracing the Politics of Place and Sovereignty
  • Mark Rifkin (bio)

The depiction of indigeneity as a set of ingrained, generationally iterated propensities in US policy discourses, and Native response(s) to that process, provides a frame through which to consider how modes of reference, knowledge-production, discipline, and regulation that broadly fall under the rubric of biopolitics might be understood as a vehicle for the erasure, reconfiguration, and genealogical reconstruction of alternative geopolitical formations—Indigenous and otherwise. The Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Kagama (1886) stands as a powerful example of US efforts to (re)define the legal and political character of Indianness in the late nineteenth century. The case addresses the murder of one resident of the Hoopa Valley Reservation in California by another resident and whether this crime can be tried as such by federal authorities and courts under the Major Crimes Act, passed the previous year, which made various acts committed by Indians against other Indians (including murder, rape, and larceny) a matter of US federal jurisdiction. The court upholds the act, finding that tribes do not constitute sovereign political entities. Rather, "They were, and always have been, regarded as having a semi-independent position when they preserved their tribal relations; not as States, not as nations, not as possessed of the full attributes of sovereignty."1 By virtue of being tribal, relations among Indians cannot be understood as "sovereignty"—as having an autonomous political existence not always already subordinated to the jurisdiction and governance of the settler state. From this perspective, Indianness can be defined as participation in a particular kind of antiquated social form, one from which Indian people might be freed and, thereby, transformed into something else.

This perspective enables the portrayal of settler colonial exertions of jurisdiction and efforts to reorganize the quotidian dynamics of Indigenous political orders as beneficent acts of civilizational pedagogy. As Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas J. Morgan suggests in his 1889 report on government-mandated projects of Indian education, "Owing to the peculiar surroundings of the mass of Indian children, they are homeless and ignorant [End Page 871] of those simplest arts that make home possible," earlier indicating that "the chief thing in all education is the development of character, the formation of manhood and womanhood."2 Within the ambit of such accounts of Indianness, Indigenous peoplehood, placemaking, and governance are translated as kinds of entrenched and reiterated inclinations that remain fundamentally exterior (or anterior) to the political/juridical frameworks of sovereignty, jurisdiction, and citizenship. Therefore, intensifying colonial invasion appears as the process of facilitating well-being through processes of de-Indianization. In this way, a geopolitics of settler expansion and Indigenous dispossession is rendered as and pursued through a biopolitics, justifying policy on the basis of its capacity to enable forms of health and welfare for a population envisioned in racializing terms. Within Indian policy formulations in the late nineteenth century, a tribe is decisively not a nation. These groups, instead, are seen as a kind of population defined by their reproduction of Indianness as an ensemble of individual and collective tendencies. From this perspective, if Indian operates as a racial designation, it is less an indication of a stable kind of body reproductively transmitted across generations than an index of a kind of biosocial assemblage in which the continuity of Indianness as a physical type (including in-born abilities and inclinations) depends on the matrix of tribalism to sustain it. The understanding of Indianness as a set of heritable biosocial patterns oriented toward barbarous ends disqualifies it from serving as the basis for a political formation.

Emergent forms of ethnographic writing in the period provided a means of inhabiting the biopolitics of Indianness in ways that foregrounded the value of Indigenous lifeworlds, drawing attention to how Native social processes generated healthful and sustaining place-based forms of collective identity. In doing so, such writing could challenge official accounts of "tribal relations" as a set of tendencies that create a degenerative milieu which retards the potential for personal and collective vigor and improvement. In 1900 Gertrude Simmons, who used the Lakota pen name Zitkala-Ša, serially published three...


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pp. 871-879
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