Indigenous peoples are being pressured to permit conversion of our economic systems into the capitalist framework of high productivity and profitability, which are not primary values that we share. If we go along, it means losing control over territories, knowledge and resources. … What will the world gain if our diverse and sustainable ways of living are destroyed so we can fit into the cogs and wheels of the globalized capitalist world? … Our resistance to the efforts to homogenize us, must be supported, including … our right to be allowed to remain different and diverse.
—Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, “Our Right to Remain Separate and Distinct”
The Mounds: “We sorely await reclaiming.”
—Allison Hedge Coke, Blood Run
For contemporary international indigenous peoples’ movements, the term global resource wars stresses the point that violence is the inevitable product of a neoliberal global economy premised on never-ending resource extraction and, what David Harvey calls, “accumulation through dispossession” (i.e., the privatization and commodification of land, resources, goods and services, the financialization of everything through speculation, asset leveraging, and credit baiting, and the neoliberal management and manipulation of global crises).1 In the words of Jerry Mander, the president of the International Forum on Globalization:
Our economic system of globalization and the corporations, investors, and bureaucracies that are its driving forces literally cannot survive without an ever-increasing supply of oil, natural gas, minerals of all kinds, freshwater, forests, and arable lands. They also require supportive infrastructures for resource extraction, such as new roads, pipelines, dams, electricity grids, airports and seaports to take the resources from the often pristine places they are found and carry them across vast terrains and oceans to markets. … The entire economic model is built upon a rickety platform requiring never-ending exponential growth, itself dependent on never-ending resource supply to feed the growth. In the long run of course, such never-ending growth is impossible on a finite planet.2
The global resource wars are the root cause of other, more visible violences: wars between nations fought over access to resources, ethnic conflicts arising out of the drive to monopolize resources, paramilitarization to remove people who get in the way of access to resources, and mass impoverishment when lands and resources that have previously supported communities are inserted into the circuits of global financialization and commodification. In particular, the global resource wars have made indigenous peoples even more direct targets for exploitation than they have been over the last several hundred years of colonization and development. Their vulnerability has increased because an overwhelming percentage of lands on which natural resources are still found are lands traditionally occupied, used, or owned by indigenous peoples, up to 50 percent according to the International Forum on Globalization. As Mander notes, “It is no small irony that the very reason that native peoples have become such prime targets … is exactly because most indigenous peoples have been so very successful over millennia at maintaining cultures, worldviews, economies, and practices … [that] do not seek to mine ever more of the natural world … nor do they ship resources … across oceans to foreign markets, but rather focus on maintaining healthy ecosystems that will continue to support sustainable communities for generations.”3
There are hundreds of examples, from every continent except Antarctica, of indigenous peoples, on the frontlines of globalization’s expansion, who are fighting for the survival of their communities against national governments seeking to ramp up exports, against extractive industries, against pollution and waste industries, against narco-traffickers, against energy and dam projects, against tourism, and against conservation movements that seek to remove indigenous peoples from their lands for so-called wilderness conservation. These include the Yanomami tribe of northern Brazil, who are being forced off their lands by illegal mining; the U’Wa, Nukak, and others in Colombia, who are being killed and driven off lands by government-sponsored paramilitaries, left-wing guerrillas, and the U.S.-sponsored Plan Colombia, which pays former drug traffickers to seize Indian lands to grow nonnarcotic crops; uncontacted tribes in Peru, who are facing disease and worse with the construction of an oil pipeline through their territories built by the Anglo-French oil giant Perenco; the 200,000 tribal people in the Ethiopia delta region, who are being evicted to build a giant hydroelectric dam financed by the World Bank; the Lahu, Lisu, Meo, and other Hmong highland tribes in Thailand, who are being evicted after the government’s sale of 25,000 kilometers to an international conservation organization; other “conservation refugees,” including the Masai in Kenya and the Bushmen in Botswana; overfishing jeopardizing the survival of Chukchi and Eskimo in Russia; and mining on North American Indian lands, including those of the Cree, Western Shoshone, Mohawk, and Zuni peoples.
Hundreds of other examples can be found on the Web sites and in the publications of indigenous organizations and networks, advocates and NGOs, and UN agencies and other multilateral bodies. These include the Indigenous Environmental Network, the White Earth Land Recovery Project, the Tebtebba Foundation, the International Indian Treaty Council, the Asian Indigenous Women’s Network, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee, Mines and Communities, the International Forum on Globalization, Amazon Watch, Survival International, Cultural Survival, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and the International Labour Organization’s Department of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.
As indigenous people across the globe over the last forty years have experienced violences generated from the same underlying source, an economic system of accumulation through dispossession, a move to unite opposition has given rise to forceful international indigenous peoples’ movements. One of the central occupations of such movements is illuminating the global resource wars as also paradigm wars, as conflicts at the level of the material politics of knowledge. A materialist understanding of knowledge demonstrates that what counts as legitimate knowledge, emerges from contestatory processes and is not autonomous from but both shapes and is determined by material circumstances and geohistorical conditions. As Chandan Reddy has reflected, “[M]odern western knowledges … have been productive of certain expressions of personhood, experience, historical process, materialism, and so forth, while foreclosing other historical, material, and epistemic organizations of subjectivity, historical process, and the so-called natural world.”4 Indigenous peoples’ movements often draw attention to the fact that the material existence of globalization as an economic system relies on the functioning and legitimacy of certain rationalizing modes (e.g., corporate individualism), construals of value (e.g., the sanctity of private property rights), and expressions of personhood (e.g., people as consumers) that many indigenous people do not share. (In this chapter’s opening epigraph, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz makes this point.) Although most of the knowledge systems of indigenous peoples, communities, and nations have been impacted by the knowledge architecture that supports economic globalization, many yet maintain some epistemic orientations that are defective for, contradict, or offer alternatives to some of its rationalizing modes, values, and notions of personhood—including orientations to collective responsibility—and that can provide the basis for alternative expressions of materialism and economy. Contemporary indigenous cultural activism often goes to work on this epistemic level to mitigate not only the physical violences of the global resource wars but also the violences intrinsic to knowledge systems that restrict what is politically and ethically possible to extractive economies and accumulation by dispossession.
Here is what is happening now: As the global resource wars have pushed onto indigenous lands, the knowledge apparatuses sustaining economic globalization have had to bring indigenous peoples into representation in a manner that explains their exploitation as inevitable, natural, or fair. But this state of affairs has also provided an opportunity for indigenous-led cultural activism to insert its own signifying systems into public discourse in order to displace the structures of legitimate knowledge, to contest dominant systems of representation, and to try to open them up to cultural meanings and epistemic orientations originating in indigenous-led interpretative communities. Reductionism and essentialism must be guarded against. The knowledge systems of indigenous peoples differ greatly from one another and are not internally homogenous. They cannot be made completely transparent to culturally nonindigenous peoples, nor can one indigenous episteme be transcoded seamlessly (or even adequately) into another, and recomprehending the world does not change it. Yet encountered on the level of media, transnational movements, and scholarship, the cultural activism of international indigenous peoples’ movements can and does insert into public discourse something like a generalized indigenous inscription of a global world system based on economies of limit and balance, reciprocal relations between people and nature, and the importance of collective rights.
Not surprisingly, neoliberal multiculturalism is one of the most useful discourses functioning today to dispossess indigenous peoples of their lands and resources and to make such dispossession appear inevitable, natural, or fair. Neoliberal multiculturalism represents multiculturalism to be the spirit of neoliberalism. It represents the access of producers and investors to diverse markets and the access of consumers to diverse goods to be emblematic of multicultural values and required for global antiracist justice. It justifies the removal of indigenous peoples from their lands by describing the entire world as the rightful potential property of global multicultural citizens. At the same time, it stigmatizes indigenous peoples as monocultural, unrealistic, doomed, chauvinistic, or “tribal,” connoting a negative orientation to an exclusively defined group. If liberal multiculturalism is considered as antecedent to today’s neoliberal multiculturalism, then U.S. multiculturalisms can be seen as having long misrepresented or obscured American Indian sovereignty and land tenure claims. By treating American Indians as ethnic minorities within the framework of cultural pluralism, conventional multicultural discourse has made government-to-government relations between the United States and American Indian nations appear counterintuitive.
Today, global multiculturalism can be spoken of as a valorized discourse that circulates throughout transnational political modernity in global media, in international civil society, in international NGOs, in the United Nations, and in other multilateral bodies. It can overlap with neoliberal multiculturalism, but it is not identical to it. Rather, it is a discourse in a global political register that globalizes the template of state multiculturalism (often U.S. multiculturalism) in order to represent an order of multicultural states as an adequate image of a multicultural world. One might think that within this discursive field the relationship between multiculturalism and indigenous rights would remain antagonistic, that the more one argued for indigenous peoples’ rights in the language of global multiculturalism, the more one would strengthen state multiculturalisms—that is, national governments—over and against the rights of indigenous peoples.
Yet surprisingly, something new is happening. Indigenous-led cultural activism is successfully using its own version of multiculturalism to make the conceptual bases for new categories of indigenous rights and new strategies for claiming land tenure appear necessary, well founded, and just. An example of such a transcoding is in the chapter-opening epigraph by Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Igorot tribal member, founder of Tebtebba (Indigenous Peoples International Center for Policy Research and Education), and current chairperson of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Tauli-Corpuz uses familiar multicultural language that ascribes positive value to difference and antipathy to being homogenized. Yet rather than staying within the field of meanings that multicultural language generally signals, namely that the equal rights of different and diverse peoples must be supported, Tauli-Corpuz uses multicultural reference to assert that a robust right to be different and distinct is the first step in asserting a right for indigenous peoples to opt out of economic globalization and to maintain separate economic systems, in the sense of separate circulations of knowledge, lands, and resources not inscribed within the value forms of capitalist globalization.
Of particular interest is indigenous cultural activism that successfully uses its own version of multiculturalism to make the culture/land conceptual bind appear comprehensible, necessary, and well founded. This conceptual bind asserts the inseparability of indigenous peoples from the earth, so that land cannot be thought of apart from its social relations with humans and human existence cannot be thought of apart from its relations to lands, trees, plants, earth formations, waters, and animals. This chapter examines two examples: (1) an activist intervention in the field of law and rights discourse and (2) an activist intervention in the field of literary multiculturalism and how it validates and organizes knowledge about difference and personhood. First examined is how the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which is largely but importantly not completely the product of international indigenous activism, transcodes multi-culturalism in order to make possible the first-ever recognition by the United Nations of an indigenous right to self-determination, the first-ever recognition of collective rights, a new derivation of rights, and a new right to free, prior, and informed consent. Although the final version of UNDRIP passed by the UN General Assembly was a compromise document and even though many nations recognize UNDRIP only as aspirational or in ways that defang it, should it become effective international customary law, it could provide an important legal tool for indigenous peacemaking in the context of the global resource wars. Second, this chapter offers a reading of Blood Run, a long narrative poem by Allison Hedge Coke, a Huron, Cherokee, and Métis poet and a movement builder within the emergent transnational networks of indigenous peoples’ movements. Blood Run narrativizes the mound city of Blood Run, a major precontact trading settlement that was estimated, around 1650, to have had some ten thousand inhabitants and to have comprised at least six distinct tribes, making it the most populous city in North America at the beginning of European settler colonialism. Blood Run is an epistemically resituating work that transcodes multicultural reference to make it possible for a culturally nonindigenous reader to imagine the viability of an (already existing) indigenous world system, which is to say a world-encompassing circulation of meaning, value, relationality, and matter.
Both of these examples are different in terms of their targets and mediations. The legal intervention of UNDRIP seeks immediate influence over court decisions premised on international customary law, whereas the literary intervention of Blood Run is premised on a long-term, noncoercive rearrangement of knowledge and desire in individual readers. Yet my analysis, proceeding from a concern with the material politics of knowledge, juxtaposes the two as mutually reenforcing textual acts in line with a general trajectory of cultural activism in indigenous-led movements to make comprehensible a culture/land bind as the conceptual basis for possible and to-come material interventions, without guarantees.
It is imperative at the outset to define indigenous because one of the strategies corporations and comprador governments use to seize native land and resources is to either misrecognize indigenous people as ethnics or—as is the case with some postcolonial governments such as those of Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Kenya—to maintain that everyone in their country is indigenous (in contrast to European colonizers) or no one is. It is important to remember that indigenous is a second-order, aggregate (and thus homogenizing) category that is most meaningful in how it construes the difference between indigenous and nonindigenous peoples. I use a modified version of the standard definition put forth by the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1972 (the bracketed material is mine):
[I]ndigenous communities, peoples, and nations are those which have a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, by conquest, settlement or other means; who consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories or parts of them; who have a special attachment to and use of their traditional land, whereby their ancestral land and territory have a fundamental importance for their collective physical and cultural survival as peoples; [and who are determined to preserve, develop, and transmit to future generations their group identity and territories, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accord with their own cultural patterns, social institutions, and notions of governance].
On the basis of this definition, there are at least 370 million indigenous people and at least 5,000 distinct communities across the globe. This chapter broadly uses the term indigenous peoples’ movements to include all indigenous-led activism to protect and strengthen the well-being of indigenous communities, peoples, and nations. The definition is broad enough to include American Indian land tenure actions in the United States, the recent alliance of Amazonian tribes to try to stop Brazil’s Bel Monto Dam project, and Bolivia’s Movimiento al Socialismo, the indigenous-led political party that brought Evo Morales, who is Aymara, into the presidency.
It is also necessary at the outset to define conceptual bind: a conceptual bind is made up of two distinct concepts that condition the meaning of one another and act together to unify and police the boundaries of an episteme or structure of knowledge. In other words, one way that knowledges appear totalizing—as if they encompass all possible conditions and situations—is through the actions of conceptual binds. As Alys Weinbaum remarks, in defining the race/reproduction bind as a conceptual coupling that structures and determines the modern episteme, it is the “conceptual unit, rather than the parts alone,” that organizes the “complex of discourses that characterize the modern historical epoch, expressing and subtending its conflicts around meaning production.”5 Some of the most powerful conceptual binds that organize our epoch include the democracy/property bind, which asserts the inseparability of the political emancipation of citizens and the apotheosis of private property rights, and the individual/rights bind, which expresses that individuals and not collectives are the proper bearers of (constitutional and human) rights.6 Both of these conceptual binds have proved useful in separating indigenous peoples from the lands they occupy. The state-recognized post–World War II antiracisms that are at issue throughout this book have taken shape within systems of determination that the democracy/property, individual/rights, and race/reproduction conceptual binds set into motion.
Since the period of European and indigenous contact in North America, indigenous cultural activism has tried, under the imperative to translate between epistemes, to legitimate the culture/land conceptual bind. The history of American Indian dispossession in the United States is also the history of the refusal of Western knowledge systems to recognize the culture/land bind as rational, examples of which can be found everywhere. An instructive one comes from a dialogue, in the reports of the Fort Lapwai negotiations of 1876–1877, between a tribal leader of the Nez Perce, or Nimíipuu, named Tulhuulhulsuit and General Oliver O. Howard of the U.S. Army. In the following translation, Tulhuulhulsuit explained why the Nimíipuu were resisting plans to remove them from their lands:
You white people measure the Earth, and divide it. The Earth is part of my body, and I never gave up the Earth. I belong to the land out of which I came. The Earth is my mother.7
General Howard responded:
We do not wish to interfere with your religion, but you must talk about practical things. Twenty times over you have repeated the Earth is your mother, and that chieftainship is from the Earth. Let us hear it no more, but come to business at once.8
Whereas Tulhuulhulsuit asserted the inseparability of land and his body in his episteme, the idea of alienating land by selling it to someone else being as irrational to him as the idea of alienating one’s own body through sale, the remarks of General Howard indicated that he saw this position itself as irrational and completely irrelevant to land treaties. To the extent he engaged Tulhuulhulsuit’s reasoning at all, he transcoded it as “religion.” Thereafter, he could benevolently recognize a right to freedom of religion for the Nimíipuu at the same time that he made Nimíipuu existence impossible according to tribal understandings of the terrestrial relations that grounded it.
Racial liberalism and liberal multiculturalism also foreclosed the culture/land bind by making it appear incomprehensible. Turning briefly to the history of American Indian land tenure claims and their relative success or failure, I suggest that the enormous cultural, political, social, and economic renaissance that has been seen in Indian country since the 1970s, with American Indian nations increasingly exercising self-determination over education, social services, tribal governance, economic development, and so much more (in the words of Charles Wilkinson, turning “reservations into homelands”), has been happening despite the rising authority of liberal multiculturalism, not because of it.9
The era of the ascendancy of racial liberalism corresponded with the period of federal termination policy. During this period the official policy of the United States was to gradually revoke federal recognition to American Indian nations and, in doing so, to end tribal sovereignty. Senator Arthur Watkins, the architect of termination, characterized the policy as progressive by describing termination as an “Emancipation Proclamation” through which American Indians would become full cultural and political citizens of the United States. Only after the breaking of white supremacy and the rise of official racial-liberal antiracism could Watson portray federally mandated detribalization and assimilation so blithely as equality. Following the logic of the earlier Dawes Act, termination policy understood becoming equal citizens as necessitating the translation of tribal land-holdings into private property. Between 1953 and 1966, under termination policy, 109 tribes were dissolved (though some were later able to restore federal recognition); fishing and hunting rights over millions of acres of territory were nullified; and nearly 1.5 million acres of tribal land were removed from protected trust status and sold.
American Indian land tenure claims were made with relative success in the U.S. courts and Congress in the brief period from the late 1960s through the middle 1970s. During this period racially based self-determination movements flourished; the American Indian sovereignty movement began its cultural, political, and legal activism; and official antiracisms were in a crisis as racial-liberal reforms no longer seemed adequate to manage racially coded conflicts. As the federal government rescinded termination and implemented a self-determination framework for its dealings with tribal nations, there was an understanding that this had to include some restoration of land and stronger land tenure rights. Nixon’s “Special Message on Indian Affairs,” the touchstone speech for changing federal policy, delivered in July 1970, was timed to coincide with the return of the Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo people. Two key legal decisions and one key legislative act cleared the way for Indian nations to seek restoration of lands and, thus, at least implicitly recognized the centrality of land tenure to American Indian existence. The Supreme Court’s affirmation of the Nonintercourse Act of 1790 allowed tribes who had reached a monetary settlement with the Indian Claims Commission to reassert their rights to land on the basis that it was illegal for any party but the federal government to enter into negotiations for tribally occupied land. This decision allowed state treaties with tribes to be ruled invalid. (In one example, the Penobscot Indian Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, and other Maine Indians employed the Nonintercourse Act to get a settlement that included the restoration of more than 300,000 acres, which were then taken into trust). The 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), as initially construed (for about seven years), recognized the culture/land conceptual bind by affirming that religious freedom for American Indian peoples mandated a right to occupy and use public lands for religious purposes. It entrusted the federal government with the responsibility to prevent development, sale, or decimation of lands of sacred or ceremonial importance. Like the AIRFA, the Boldt decision of 1974 was able to take indigenous epistemes on board as it reviewed the case of treaty rights for off-reservation fishing and hunting asserted by the salmon nations (the Quinault, the Spokane, the Coeur d’Alene, and others) in the state of Washington. Elders testified that their grandparents would never have entered into land cession treaties without fully believing traditional salmon-taking practices could continue at traditional places. Tribal stories and ceremonies were offered as evidence. The Boldt decision validated the right of the salmon nations and other tribes to use and occupy traditional lands for hunting and fishing and to have a role, along with state and federal authorities, in the stewardship of such lands.
By the middle of the 1980s, as the culture wars gave more and more legitimacy to liberal-multicultural paradigms, the courts and Congress pushed back. More and more frequently, both refused to recognize a necessary interconnection between land tenure and tribal existence when adjudicating rights of land ownership, possession, use, and occupancy. In fact, despite the victories that have accompanied the rise of modern American Indian nations since the termination period in the 1960s, when tribal land-holdings held in trust fell to a low point of 50 million acres, some forty years later that number has risen to only 59 million acres. Liberal multiculturalism made it possible to settle land tenure conflicts in the favor of private property rights by asserting the necessary and adequate inclusion of American Indian communities and issues within U.S. cultural pluralism. By securing culture and identity as kinds of properties to which American Indian peoples had rights, liberal multiculturalism prioritized private property rights over and against the collective goals of contemporary American Indian nations. It foreclosed the culture/land conceptual bind yet again, making it appear irrational and even illegal. So although by the middle of the 1980s there were a host of legal and legislative victories for certain cultural rights—the National Museum of the American Indian Act (1989), the Native American Languages Act of 1990, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990)—at the same time, the Supreme Court overturned the precedent for using AIRFA to protect rights of use and access to sacred and ceremonial lands. (See Lyng v. Northwestern Indian Cemetery Protective Association (1988), in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Yurok, Karuk, and Tolowa nations could not stop Department of Agriculture managers from building a road that would destroy land that was at the center of tribal world-creation ceremonies for more than two hundred years. In his dissent, Justice Brennan revealed the way the winds were blowing for AIRFA, stressing that “the Court believes that Native Americans who request that the Government refrain from destroying their religion effectively seek to exact from the Government de facto beneficial ownership of federal property.”)10 Furthermore, the use of the Nonintercourse Act of 1790 has been compromised by state rulings that have decreed a 200-year limit for claiming possessory rights, by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Carcieri v. Kempthorne (2009), which states that only tribes recognized at the time of the Indian Reorganization Act may have land put into trust, and by the Department of Interior’s decision to deploy land-into-trust tests based on property-development goals (for businesses, offices, or housing) rather than on the centrality of specific lands, waters, and other natural formations to the traditions, histories, ceremonies, cultures, and governance of specific American Indian nations.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
In examining the uses of multicultural discourse in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), it must first be recognized that indigenous collectives address the United Nations paradoxically. The United Nations is an alliance of nation-states, the conditions of which, for many, required colonizing and displacing indigenous peoples. As Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred reminds us: “State sovereignty can only exist in the fabrication of a truth that excludes the indigenous voice. It is in fact antihistoric to claim that the state’s legitimacy is based on the rule of law.”11 Insofar as the UN represents just global governance, it does so only as an amalgamation of nation-states whose sovereignty depends upon bracketing indigenous claims. Yet the UN is also an “enabling violation,” to borrow a term from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, an indispensible venue for indigenous peoples to seek protection from or redress against national governments. For much of its history, the United Nations addressed indigenous rights claims only inadequately, mostly through delay and deferral or by weakly reprimanding abusive member states. Since the mid-1990s, however, the situation has changed radically. First, it has become impossible to address global conflicts without directly addressing indigenous issues. Second, indigenous peoples’ movements have gained a real foothold at the United Nations and changed its structures to allow indigenous-nominated and indigenous-elected officials to hold UN offices. Furthermore, in 2002 the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was established to integrate and coordinate activities related to indigenous issues across the UN system, and indigenous peoples’ movements have also successfully made use of UN research and advocacy platforms by, for example, instituting the first and second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (1995–2004 and 2005–2014).
Much of this momentum was gathered around and unleashed by the fight for the passage of UNDRIP. Beginning in 1982, it took twenty-five years to formulate the declaration and secure its passage. Indigenous representatives were unable to enter the drafting process until 1994, however, when a draft of the document moved from the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples to the Commission on Human Rights. Twelve years later, UNDRIP was finally passed by the Human Rights Commission, but before it could be taken up by the General Assembly for final approval, it was nearly killed by the so-called Namibia resolution.
By 2006 many member states who had previously been sympathetic to its passage were now led by neoliberal administrations, including the CANZUS states—Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States—who had large indigenous populations and had elected governments who saw themselves as advocates for neoliberal deregulation and corporate interests with designs on indigenous lands. This group mobilized the African regional bloc of nations (many of whose governments were partnered with CANZUS-supported extractive industries) to put forth a resolution calling for more consideration of UNDRIP, a temporizing move intended to permanently table it, on the grounds that it granted rights so broad as to be unworkable in that they threatened the political and territorial integrity of nation-states. Indigenous-led activism and the mediation of supportive member states defeated the Namibia resolution, and a revised version of UNDRIP was brought before the General Assembly and passed on September 13, 2007. The final version contained two compromise clauses, however, that appeared to give states the ability to violate indigenous rights in cases of potential conflict.12 Also, unlike previous rights declarations, UNDRIP did not pass unanimously, which weakened the argument for treating it as international customary law. A number of detracting member states, including all of the CANZUS states, were able to read into the record, with their votes, statements that adjudged UNDRIP to be only aspirational. They also read into the record their refusal to recognize certain articles they characterized as unprecedented, disunifying, and dangerous. Those articles were precisely the ones that successfully articulated and transcoded multiculturalism to legitimate the culture/land bind as the conceptual foundation for rights other than those generally guaranteed by state-oriented universalisms.
UNDRIP begins its work of recoding multiculturalism immediately in its preamble. At first its language seems merely to be describing the need for nondiscrimination and equality for indigenous peoples within a conventional multicultural framework. It affirms that “all peoples contribute to the diversity and richness of civilizations,” that “all doctrines, policies, and practices based on the superiority of peoples on the basis of national origin, religion, racial, religious, ethnic or cultural difference are … socially unjust,” and that “indigenous people, in the exercise of their rights, should be free from discrimination of any kind.”13 But the preamble then renovates multicultural reference, and instead of making the conventional point that multiculturalism safeguards the equality of different groups, multicultural language is made to signify equality as the foundation for construing difference as a robust right. The preamble “[affirms] that indigenous peoples are equal to other peoples, while recognizing the right of all peoples to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such.” Taking this further, the preamble moves multicultural reference from robustly asserting difference to asserting a whole different derivation of rights for indigenous peoples. It goes on to “[recognize] the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples which derive from their political, economic, and social structures, and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories, and philosophies, and especially their rights to lands, territories, and resources.”
Recognizing difference here makes for a quiet revolution by breaking from Western modernity’s traditional derivation of rights from God, nature, the state, or the social contract. This break not only deuniversalizes rights orientations that hypostasize liberal-capitalist democratic states (as guardians of such rights) but also posits the possibility of antithetical rights paradigms. These antithetical paradigms can derive from cultural differences and from structural (political, economic, and social) differences. Most important, they can derive from a different understanding of and relationship to the land and earth. Considered from this point of view, the diction of the preamble’s statement that “the inherent rights of indigenous peoples derive from … their rights to their lands, territories and resources” suggests, in the first place, a land-based derivation of rights that becomes, secondarily, a right to land tenure. Here, rights to lands, territories, and resources do not derive from property or possessory rights or from eminent domain but from an encultured, reciprocal, and situated relationship to the land and earth as a nonhuman subjectivity that contains (and literally grounds) the human.
The preamble transcodes multicultural reference in two other inter-ventionary ways, both necessary to safeguard UNDRIP’s new derivation of rights (from social relations with the land and earth) and the corresponding possibility of rights antithetical to Western rights universalisms. First, the preamble expands the concept of nondiscrimi-nation from individuals to groups, a noncontroversial move within conventional multiculturalism, in order to controversially assert that recognizing the entitlement of indigenous groups to all human rights without discrimination, necessarily affirms that “indigenous people possess collective rights which are indispensible for their existence, well-being, and integral development as peoples.” Second, the preamble resignifies conventional multicultural understandings of indigenous peoples as cultural groups in order to assert that indigenous peoples are on the same level as national peoples and thus maintain the same right to self-determination. The preamble rhetorically accomplishes this resignification by quoting preexisting language from the Charter of the United Nations (repeated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). It “[acknowledges] that the Charter of the United Nations … affirm[s] the fundamental importance of the right of self-determination of all peoples, by virtue of which they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development” (emphasis added). As it signifies within the total context of the declaration, the repetition of the term peoples transferentially allows an equivalence between two usages of a homonym that ordinarily appear to be nonequivalent in political modernity: the anthropological term peoples, usually referring to non-Western subnational cultures, and the political term peoples, usually referring to the citizenry of modern nation-states.
Securing collective rights and self-determination for indigenous peoples in UNDRIP was logically required to prevent the bid that using multicultural reference against the grain opened up from being turned back around against indigenous transcoding. When a multicultural right to be equal and different is not grounded in indigenous economic, political, and social systems and cultural understandings, it can simply be construed as the right of indigenous peoples to be equal and different according to the state’s description of indigeneity. It was precisely the right of indigenous peoples to exist as such from the standpoint of their own knowledge systems that was at stake in the refusal of CANZUS and other nations to recognize indigenous collective rights and self-determination.
Whereas the preamble secures the necessity to recognize indigenous collective rights derived from the land and earth (in order to affirm indigenous human rights in the context of difference), the articles of UNDRIP evidence preparations for a battle between rights frameworks. They articulate indigenous rights in a manner that performatively constitutes the culture/land conceptual bind as the privileged conceptual basis for subtending possible conflicts around the meaning, protection, and exercise of indigenous rights. Here, transcoded multicultural discourse, made to bear the legitimacy of the culture/land bind, acts like a moving snake that burrows into conventional rights discourse and hollows out its concept of land as property above all else. In fact, snakelike signifying acts reinforce one another by coming at the culture/land bind from two directions: (1) articles that declare culture rights that are impossible and unthinkable without land, and (2) articles that declare land rights that are impossible and unthinkable without culture. Taken together, the articles unify a structure of knowledge, based on the inextricability of culture/land, in which culture does not exist apart from its terrestrial embodiment and land does not exist apart from its cultural relations with human beings.
First, consider the articles that declare culture rights that are impossible or unthinkable apart from land tenure. For example, Article 11 and Article 12 state:
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect, and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artifacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature. … (emphasis added)
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites. … (emphasis added)
In these articles the rhetoric of “to manifest” signals an indigenous understanding that culture is always located and is not solely anthro-centric but depends upon relations with terrestrially situated elements. To manifest is not to create but to make evident, to reveal the presence of something. Similarly, a manifestation is not an alienable item but the demonstration of the existence or presence of some extant being. The “right to maintain, develop, and protect the past, present, and future manifestations of their cultures” in Article 11 thus signifies that culture happens geographically (is manifest on land) and that traditions, customs, and ceremonies are manifest not because they are brought into being but because they appear, are present, or become evident through human activities interacting with nonanthropomorphic but sentient elements there and on the land. The specifically named categories of sites in the articles—archaeological, historical, religious, and cultural—do not refer to exceptional cultural places but rather signal the grounding of indigenous (cultural) existence in general. This idea comes across most forcefully in Article 25:
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters, and coastal seas and other resources. … (emphasis added)
The idea that indigenous peoples have a distinctive spiritual relationship with lands, seas, resources, and so on suggests not only that indigenous culture is unthinkable apart from its grounding but also that this ground itself—specific lands, seas, trees, plants—are encultured or enspirited tribal members whose presence is categorically necessary for indigenous survival. The right to maintain a spiritual relationship with these entities signals that land tenure comes not from occupation or use but from reciprocal responsibilities. What emerges is a sense of an episteme organized by the culture/land bind, an episteme that requires humans to fulfill their relational responsibilities to specific lands, seas, and plants, who are spiritual tribal members, and for these lands, seas, and plants to fulfill their responsibilities to humans.14
Now let us consider the articles that declare land rights that are unthinkable without culture—that is, how UNDRIP uses the culture/land bind to adjudicate potential conflicts of meaning around land tenure in favor of a conceptual paradigm that signifies land in terms of its cultural relations with human beings rather than one that conceives of land as primarily property. For example, Article 26 states: “Indigenous peoples have rights to the land, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired. … States shall give legal recognition to these lands, territories and resources … with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous people concerned.” Of all UNDRIP’s articles, this one was most histrionically repudiated by the CANZUS nations, who construed it as making their entire landmass subject to indigenous claims and thus jeopardizing their very territorial existence. Obviously, nobody thought that the United States, Canada, and Australia would dissolve their sovereignty and give all the land back to the tribes. But the article does make it clear that in the adjudication of land tenure cases, where the rights to land of the state or private parties and indigenous peoples are unclear or contested, the state is required to hear the case for legal recognition with the ear of indigenous land tenure systems. That is to say, it should recognize disputed land, territories, and resources as part of socio-cultural-geographic systems where these things becomes meaningful through inhabitation, tradition, and their role in cultural, economic, social, and religious practices.
One of the most profound ideas to emerge from UNDRIP is the right of indigenous peoples to opt out of globalization, as stipulated in Article 32, which states, “Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their territories or other resources,” and specifically mentions a right to opt out of extractive economies. What these other development priorities might be remains unspecified. In terms of the global resource wars, the first step is to have UNDRIP recognized by states as international customary law. But one potential new orientation for both development and rights appears in the statement, given by the Bolivian delegate, explaining Bolivia’s vote to approve UNDRIP. In the words of their minister of foreign affairs, David Choquehuanca Céspedes, “The world’s indigenous peoples, with their characteristic patience, have waited 25 years for the adoption of this historic Declaration. Mother Earth has gone through changes while this was going on and now the planet is clearly wounded. Indigenous people raised their voices to ensure the protection and preservation of Mother Earth.”15 Here, the delegate celebrates UNDRIP not as a human rights document but as a declaration that safeguards the earth. As Taiaiake Alfred explains, “Indigenous thought is often based on the notion that peoples, communities, and other elements of creation co-exist as equals—human beings, as either individuals or collectives, do not have a special priority in deciding the justice of a situation.”16 What would it be to take the well-being of the earth, recognized as inseparable from the well-being of rights-bearing people, as a basic frame of reference for justice? One condition might be to recognize care for the earth, conceived as an Other to whom people are responsible, as a necessary condition for justice.
Manifesting an (Already Existing, Intruded Upon) Indigenous Inscription of a World System
Allison Hedge Coke, the author of Blood Run: A Free Verse Play, is currently the Distinguished Reynolds Chair in Poetry and Writing at the University of Nebraska–Kearney. She is an accomplished poet and activist of Tsalagi, Wyandot, Huron, Métis, English, Irish, and Scot antecedents. On her curriculum vitae Coke describes her activities, in part, as “cultivating pan-American Indigenous exchange,” which she does both through her work on the poetry circuit, including regular participation in world poetry festivals in Colombia and Venezuela, and on the activist circuit, including the forums of the United Nations, where she has served many times as a delegate and a presenting speaker. Blood Run, the mound city that the poem narrativizes, was a major precontact trading city occupying more than 2,300 acres on what is now the Iowa–South Dakota border. It was the economic, political, and cultural center for allied tribes of the Oneonta, ascendants of American Indian people today called Ho-Chunk, Missouria, Ioway, Otoe, Quapaw, Omaha, Ponca, Kansa, Osage, Cheyenne, and Dakota. The city was at one time made manifest by more than four hundred mounds, some more than 8,000 years old and some used by subsequent indigenous nations well into the early twentieth century. Today, no more than eighty mounds are still visibly present on the landscape.
Blood Run emerges out of Allison Hedge Coke’s activist endeavor to honor and rebuild the pan-American indigenous trade routes, which at one time crisscrossed the Western Hemisphere. One goal of such activism is to facilitate the possibility that indigenous peoples in the Americas might come together to support those in the hot zones of the global resource wars, such as Colombia and Brazil. Another goal, meaningful for a long-term material politics of knowledge, is to remember the past and assert the present and future viability of world-encompassing circulations of matter, value, and relations built not around extractive industries and profit but around sustainable exchanges of the means of material sustenance, symbolic offerings, and balanced relations with the earth.
To understand how Blood Run faces up to literary studies as a technology for producing race-liberal orders and how it aligns with other radically antiracist materializing cultural activism, I must briefly engage the contexts of American Indian literary criticism and Native American studies at U.S. universities. My position is difficult because these are not my fields of study and because my chief locus of responsibility to Native communities has not been through my academic work but to Ho-Chunk, Anishinaabe, Oneida, Black Foot, and Menominee friends and relations who I’ve been honored to manifest community with over the last six years. I write, with my limited academic preparation, not to lay claim to a field of knowledge or to make pronouncements but out of the belief that learning from communally conferred tribal knowledges (within the United States and without, inside and outside universities) offers strong opposition to some of the most deadly articulations of power and knowledge at work on the planet.
As I understand it, Native American literary criticism (“criticism authored by Native people,” following Craig Womack’s baseline in Reasoning Together) has been remarkably resistant to the incorporative forces of literary studies as a cultural technology for producing liberal multiculturalism and neoliberal multiculturalism.17 In fact, where a critical mass of Native literary scholars is found, there seems to be some success in manifesting what Sean Teuton calls “an American Indian center,” a place to develop, centralize, support, and confer value on Native social knowledges and “tradition[s] of community-based intellectualism.” Teuton points to indigenous intellectuals such as Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Robert Warrior, and Jace Weaver, who “have begun to root our studies in land, community, and the past. In doing so, they are empowered to make evaluative claims to normative [communally conferred] knowledge, which, in turn, better support the actual recovery of Indian lands, histories, and identities.”18 Native American literary criticism is connected to the larger materializing cultural activism of decolonization and self-determined reoccupation ongoing in Native communities since the 1970s, evidenced in the growing numbers of language speakers, the recovery of traditional foods, and the re-creation of cultural, spiritual, and governance practices rooted in tribal histories, philosophies, and stories. The resistance to literary multiculturalism is seen in Native American literary criticism’s indifference to the canon debates; its interest in sovereignty-oriented criticism that develops integrated, tribally specific interpretative paradigms, as well as regional ones based in historically deep intercultural relations; and on the emphasis in forming centers for autonomous and self-defined knowledge production, from the resurgence of the Institute of American Indian Arts to the Wordcraft Circle to the Native Critics Collective to the recently constituted Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.
Yet such tribally grounded intellectual frameworks do not often extend to mainstream reception or conversations about American Indian literature. Native fiction and some authors have high visibility and presence, but Native literary criticism and interpretations informed by tribal knowledges, lived contexts, and analyzed experience do not. Marginalization and the numbers game play their parts. Such conditions mean that liberal-multicultural paradigms actively impel mainstream discourses about American Indian literature, employing the restricted horizons of cultural pluralism—authenticity, identity, recognition, respect, diversity—to dematerialize thinking about American Indian conditions of existence. Sherman Alexie has commented on the abstracting violence of liberal multiculturalism in his poem “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel.”19 In Alexie’s rendering, such a novel, so perfectly purged of contradictions that it could be immediately canonized, would have to include all the ideological truisms: All the Indians would have “tragic features”; the hero would be a “half-breed,” “preferably from a horse culture”; and there would be a murder, a suicide, alcoholism, and cars driven at high speeds. Most sinisterly, the very existence of the Great American Indian novel would signal that liberal multiculturalism had completely abstracted and consumed the reality of American Indian existence in the name of cultural inclusion: “In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written / all of the white people will be Indians, and all of the Indians will be ghosts.” In light of the global resource wars and the contemporary use of neoliberal multiculturalism to represent indigenous people across the globe as monocultural and irredeemable (the better to appropriate lands and resources), Alexie’s ghosting harkens back to an era that more commonly applied liberal multiculturalism’s tactics of assimilation and the racialized commodification of cultural property.
Blood Run situates itself in this context and addresses both American Indian readers involved in the materializing work of re-creating cultures centered in indigenous philosophies and non-Native audiences. Blood Run stymies liberal-multicultural reading habits to make difference robustly appear as a different episteme, one underwritten by the culture/land conceptual bind and the thinking it makes possible. Though the poem is made up of a series of monologues, Blood Run has no human being with which readers can sympathize, no American Indians to represent, recognize, include, or integrate within American pluralism. Instead, in Blood Run all the nonhuman elements of creation, the nonhuman members of society, speak: Burial Mounds, Snake Mounds, Corn, Beaver, Pipestone Tablets, Horizon, Buffalo, and River, as well as social roles unoccupied by anyone in particular, such as Clan Sister, Ghosts, Memory, and even Jesuit. Using these formal devices, Blood Run disallows reading for cultural representativeness, information retrieval, sympathetic identification, or counterhistories that remain in the same discursive formation as cultural pluralism. Instead, it creates a comprehensive grammar for signifying indigeneity even as it blocks liberal-multicultural reading practices that impose representativeness, authenticity, and other multicultural values. The reader who says yes to Blood Run, who reads it according to its protocol, will use its monologues to try to become attuned to the language of the place (its social text). They will attempt to learn the relationships between the different speakers, their functions and roles with regard to one another, the value forms they articulate, the meanings they pass on, and what it is to think and feel within the culture/land conceptual bind and Blood Run’s representation of a pan-American indigenous biome. To assert the cultural activism of Blood Run in the strongest-possible material terms, it allegorizes reading as the process of learning to desire to inhabit, or at least being willing to imagine robustly, an indigenous inscription of a global world system, which the poem represents as always existing, still existing, and becoming more manifest in the future.20
It is important that mounds are at the center of the grammar being learned and, thereby, the world system being recalled and portended. Mounds within indigenous epistemes function as transposers or sites of crossing—for example, between upper and lower worlds or between ceremonial cycles of renewal. In the context of Blood Run and the global resource wars, mounds present distinct possibilities for transposition because dominant knowledge systems delimiting property, ownership, and eminent domain nevertheless recognize mounds as sacred or spiritual lands, which is to say that property regimes have never fully transcoded mounds into their own systematicity. Someone can own the property on which mounds are located, but mounds themselves are, as sacred sites, potentially subject to other rules of dispensation. Mounds help thinking and feeling one’s way into the culture/land conceptual bind because they are simultaneously recognized as both land and culture; they are products of human endeavor but are still nature—what might be called a human landscape, to follow Lance Foster. Mounds, as figured in Blood Run, can be thought of as bits of code that infiltrate one program to, like a computer virus, switch on another that then begins to write over the first. Using mounds, Coke imagines an indigenous scripting of the world switching on from within economic globalization and, to paraphrase the poem, remaking itself in this newly made thing.
After an opening poem, composed of a version of the author’s oral testimony before the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks Department urging the state to secure the site of the mound city, Blood Run is divided into three sections, “Origin,” “Intrusions,” and “Portend.” This structure directs the reader to try to undo a sense of progressive time (past, present, future) that Winona La Duke and others have so convincingly connected to a global modernity premised on consumption and disposability. Instead, the time sense in Blood Run expresses a ceremonial or balancing sense of time that might be described as like a Mōbius strip, where one can move forward but arrive back in the same place. In certain conjunctures, or through certain ceremonies, time can be intersecting (past, present, future can coexist), so things can be made right or brought into balance. Hedge Coke presents Blood Run the mound city as a place that symbolizes a ceremonial or intersecting time sense and thereby metatextually figures Blood Run the poem as a vehicle for teaching a time sense more conducive to economies of limit and balance.
“Origin” focuses not on what is past and gone but on the original time of Blood Run and on what from that original time still exists despite European intrusions. All the personae and the speakers in “Origin” are present in the original time of Blood Run the settlement and continue to exist in the chronological present at the Blood Run mound site, and they include Red-Wing Black Bird, North Star, Cupped Bolder, Deer, the River, and the Mounds. The cycle of monologues in “Origin” powerfully communicates relations of exchange based on offering, recognition, and responsibilities that circulate between the People of Blood Run in its original time and the nonhuman personae that voice these relations. An important example is the poetic monologue attributed to the Mounds:
Rising from earth-black, rich-fresh soil
lifted, hauled for multitudes in woven baskets
piled one on top of another, again, again, laid down
upon overlaying ground base, allowing drainage for long term care,
until we appear as small, circular, sloping hills to untrained eyes beholding.
Here the earth is sanctified, sacrament caressed.
Created by cultural duty, by love for The People
Prepared to preserve proper burial of loved, cherished.
Of those who lived in honor, in respect for mother earth, they
rose from, returned to remain encased in earthly wombs sheltered.
Lain precise, in accordance; constellation rise, cyclic phenomena, lunar cycle,
solar event; in the manner of being positioned relevant to all that was—will be.
Measured by line, multidimensional, geometrical design, envisioned, embraced made form
from rope lines calculating paths, fiery loved ones guiding us here in this world from far beyond.21
These lines of poetry mirror the shape of mounds themselves, portraying balance and symmetry as primary values of the world they anchor. The monologue figures a practical consciousness attuned to the culture/land bind that definitively removes land from property systems. The first and second stanzas portray mound building as simultaneously making culture and maintaining balance—one might say loving relations (“caressing”)—with the natural world. They depict a communal effort of ceremonial world renewal in which the distinction between man-made and nature is unthinkable and human effort creates organic forms, mounds that “appear as small, circular, sloping hills” (17). The burial mounds described in the second stanza, through which the respectful dead receive shelter in the womb of mother earth, conjure relations of reciprocity that make the concept of land as having only object existence appear strange. The third stanza reinforces the culture/land bind by describing mounds as writing, that is, as signifiers within an interpretative system of guidance and calculation that includes constellations.
The more the reader works through “Origin,” sounding out its cultural circulations, the more strange notions of ownership and property become. They simply stop computing in the face of a code that stresses the nonhumancentric relatedness of all planetary elements. The monologues circulate bits of that code, stressing not only the interrelatedness of all elements but also how the actions of the culture it narrativizes revolve around practices that recognize, signal, and honor this relatedness. Consider the following poetic monologue:
They took deer, elk scapula, scraped soil
just enough to loosen my path.
Drove a planting peg,
turned held to one side
as I dropped dried
into wet earth.
Dance for me.
There will be plenty
here for you
knees give, straighten,
feet gentle touch—
You can figure the phases of the moon
by my sprouting tassels. (24)
In this monologue the dropping of dried corn into wet earth echoes the placing of the seed of the human within the burial mound, and both connote renewal. The elk scapula as a tool develops in advance the interrelations between people, deer, and corn. The instructions to dance connect the most basic movements of intertribal American Indian dance steps to the look and movement of corn stalks, straight and tall, shoulders back, with a slight bending of the knees up and down. Corn tassels indexing phases of the moon add another layer of interrelation, another circulation of informing while honoring.
“Intrusions” portrays the present of postcontact modernity and the contemporary occupants of the mound site, from “Tractor” to “Anthro” to “Jesuit,” as intrusions disrupting an indigenous world that does not cease to exist on its own terms. The sense that this disruption is superficial and that in a future anterior time indigenous circulations will again become manifest is reinforced by the denotations of to intrude. The specialized geological definition of to intrude is “the action or process of forcing a body of ingenuous rock between or through an existing formation without reaching the surface.”22 This valence of to intrude metaphorizes the preceding indigenous inscription of the world as a layer of bedrock that experiences fracturing and displacement as another body of rock—the modern epoch—thrusts into it, yet the indigenous bedrock sustains sufficient counterforce to prevent this colliding body from reaching its surface and more substantially fracturing its form. The more common definition of to intrude is “to put oneself deliberately into a place or situation where one is unwelcome or uninvited.”23 This valence for to intrude contrasts the rituals of offering, balancing, and respecting, which Blood Run figures as constituting sociality in indigenous circulations, with the modus operandi of profit, exploitation, and use, which the poem attributes to the socioeconomic relations of capitalist modernity.
“Intrusions” describes mounds being destroyed for agriculture, to loot artifacts, and for scientific investigation. A poetic monologue from the section “Burial Mound” indicates that such actions—forcing superproductivity, reaping gain through theft, acquiring knowledge through injury—intrude not only on the physical world but also on ceremonial cycles involving human, land, and spirit, which Blood Run represents to be fundamental for world renewal. Consider the lament of “Burial Mound” in “Intrusions”:
My seed coat meant for sheltering. chambers choate.
Though now my beauty furrowed, furled so
I can scarcely shield the remains of my People,
nurture their blooming spirits for antithesis.
Their heritage seed below at Macy, in Omaha—
They speak to me, from both sides,
turnip hole; still breathing.
Each needing antithesis to fare well through me.
Without my womb, they but dust. (58)
This passage forcefully portrays the body as part of the land, a seed planted in the mound to grow from the nutrients of the earth, for renewal and antithesis. The metaphor “turnip hole” gives a sense that death is an underground growth. “Antithesis” suggests a transition from embodied-being to spirit-being and from spirit-being back to embodied-being, with death a step in a multistage process of regeneration that happens from “both sides” so long as the womb of the mound maintains. When this does not happen, intrusions may counterintuitively accelerate cycles of ripening, renewal, or return, as a second poem titled “Burial Mound” powerfully indicates:
I do my best to shelter, keep them.
Sometimes, perhaps remembering,
from my tilled base, barely protected gatherings
a finger reaches out to test the temperature. (46)
Here, the disturbance and partial destruction of the mound does not kill the process of antithesis described in the first “Burial Mound.” Instead, it advances it unnaturally. Destructive forces wind up working against those who unleash them, so that the success of the intruding system provides the momentum for its own negation.
A poetic monologue in “Intrusions,” spoken by the persona Ghosts, increases the reader’s capacity to see Blood Run as fully inhabited, not abandoned, cancelling the idea of indigeneity as properly belonging to the past by asserting the priority of an animating presence that suffuses the landscape as completely as the weather.
With Redwinged Blackbird grace,
we raise red grass as we pass over
field, hill, meadow.
The swirl, our motion.
causes scarlet bee blossom,
pimpernel, tall grass to swing as if they run.
We swirl loose dust, white, red,
fine powder lifts, sparks
in afternoon sunlight.
has been known since
time in this world began.
Leave us amaranth, goosefoot,
lamb’s quarters, knotweed, anise,
Ree tobacco if you meander long.
Some of us have skeletons nearby. (47)
The presence of ghosts can be recognized in the subtle movements of prairie grasses and flowers, whose swirling may be read as a dance, a ceremony that recognizes the ghosts who put it into motion. Presence is also revealed, if one looks for it, in the swirls of “loose dust, white, red,” the same colors and the same dust that in “Origin” is depicted as ritually painted on the faces of the People. This presence indicates that medicine remains at the Blood Run site and that prior ceremonies continue, transmuted. Also, rather than being relics of the past or signs of devastation, ghosts indicate that the cosmological system, of which they have always been apart, continues to thrive on the lower frequencies: “This familiar rustle / has been known since / time in this world began” (47). The end of the poem, in its direct address to an implied reader, invites participation in the circulation of offering and exchange that it depicts to be operating in situ at Blood Run, although intruded upon.
Blood Run’s final section, “Portend,” in contrast to the notion of a future discontinuous with the present, happens now, even as it stretches forward, as seen in the word’s etymology: por, meaning “toward,” combines with tend, “to stretch.” A portend is a sign or signal that something especially momentous is likely to happen, and the function of the monologues in “Portend” is to signal and, by signaling, to call forth the imminent manifestation of a never fully diminished indigenous world system. The nonhumancentric process is referred to in the monologues as the Reclaiming, and its prefiguring signs would be missed by the uninitiated, who are unable to read the ceremony in the singing of crickets or the dancing of a tree. Dance provides a good figure for the work of “Portend”: it is moving with recognition, to the tune of conditions ripening for the re-creation of balance. If during “Intrusions” a poison diminishes indigenous circulations, then in “Portend” dance invokes a detoxifying counterrhythm.
In one “Portend” poem, Memory is the agent of antithesis, of imbuing with a futurity the elements of the total indigenous inscription of a world system found in “Origin.” As the poetic monologue delivered in Memory’s name recapitulates most of the personae from “Origin,” the effect is of things being put back in place, an eminent renewal of indigenous circulations:
Shhh, crickets are singing.
What takes to wing now folds.
All that we consist of must be made implicit, ghosts.
Corn has the hardest task.
The squatters have used you
since setting down, bearing arms.
Now orchestrating genomes, rushing
your beauty, your seed. Plowing
what remains of us to ruin, in your name.
Yet, innocent, nourishing you remain.
In the night you are forgiven, made over,
dew-kissed, visited. Our dearest loved one
they keep captive. One day you will join us.
My Peoples. North Star, Blue Star, Morning Star will
give you direction, strength, cleansing.
All around you makes medicine, purified.
Sun, Moon over all each turning
In the meanwhile, every beaver, silver fox, deer, dog,
Will know us. For now, for earthly presence nigh. (83)
The opening exclamation directs the reader to listen for frequencies coming together in the natural world. “What takes to wings now folds” elaborates the sense of time that can intersect, whereas “All that we consist of must be made implicit” reinforces the idea of antithesis as the physical manifestation of the spiritual and the spiritual manifestation of the physical. “Implicit” implies both this deep connection between the spiritual and the physical and a process of indirection that can be considered a kind of protection. In fact, in this monologue recognizing connections between the elements constitutes the mode by which the indigenous world is being made whole. The example of Corn being forgiven and having to work to not be captive indicates that a general process of purification is necessary to route out poisonous circulations. From the last lines it becomes apparent that all the elements necessary for such purification are present. Clan animals most brethren to the People are the first to know the reimbuing of the physical world with the indigenous world Memory observes returning.
Blood Run actually finishes with an epilogue entitled “When the Animals Leave This Place,” which happens in a future anterior time (when the Reclaiming will have begun to happen). It is not so much a prediction, which falls outside the realm of what literature can convincingly do, as it is a prefiguring, which literature can do and which coheres with the allegory of reading the poem as a way to become attuned to its representation of the indigenous grammar of Blood Run the mound site. The animals of the title may be the destroyed effigy mounds or thousands of red-winged blackbirds poisoned in South Dakota for eating grains to be sold as birdseed or the general decline in animal life that follows from habitat destruction. In any case, the epilogue amplifies a sense of concerted movement in the natural world enacting a ceremony for restoring indigenous circulations. As the animals leave, they call forth a purifying deluge. The following lines transliterate the beginning of a rainstorm into drumming and dancing, sounds and movements to summon and accompany processes of renewal:
When the Animals Leave This Place
Droplets pound, listen.
Hoofed and pawed mammals
Pawing and hoofing themselves up, up
The old ones said,
“When the animals leave this place
the waters will come again.
This power is beyond the strength of man.
The river will return with its greatest force.”
Frogs chug throaty songs.
The frogs only part of immense choir
heralding the downpour, the falling oceans.
Over the train trestle, suspension bridge with
current so slick everything slides off in sheets
Waters above, below
the choir calling it forth.
Brightly plumed jays and dull brown-headed cowbirds
fly as if hung in one place like pinwheels.
They dance toward the rain crest,
the approaching storm
evoked by beasts and water creatures wanting their homes.
Wanting to return to clearings and stream where ash, or
White birch wood rise, tower over,
quaking aspen stand against
storm shown veils—sheeting rains crossing
pasture, meadow, hills, mountain.
Gathering clouds converge, push,
Pull, push, pull forcing lightning
Air swells with dampness.
It has begun. (89–92)
Sounds of drums transubstantiate in “pounding droplets.” The hoofing and pawing of animals moving up to higher ground manifest the first steps of what reveals itself to be a dance. Frogs, birds, “beasts and water creatures wanting their homes” also call and dance, “beckoning, inviting, summoning”—orchestrating the process. All forms of water and storm are evoked, from sheets of heavy rain to the moment of dampness before rain begins. In the deluge upper and lower worlds converge, the sky comes down, and the earth’s surface rises up. In contrast to Noah’s flood, the connotation is a cleaning osmosis, perhaps a remanifestation of the world of “Origin.”
Blood Run’s epilogue directs the reader to think through a concept of justice not encompassed by the framework of human rights. The primary wrong done is, in this last instance, not to indigenous peoples or any peoples, as either individuals or collectives, but to the land, animals, and relations of responsibility and partnership between these and human beings. The Reclaiming that occurs to restore balance is outside human prerogatives. One suspects the final line of Blood Run, “It has begun,” refers to an indigenous scripting of the world switching on from within economic globalization. What is key here is that both the final tipping point and the Reclaiming are outside human prerogatives. The poem allows contemplation of how human rights discourses—products of our modern epoch of state sovereignty and global capitalist development—fail to address the conditions for the well-being of planetary life and, therefore, fail to secure human rights. Indigenous peoples’ movements are often premised on this conundrum. Their cultural activism reminds us that although it is just to honor the human rights of indigenous peoples and all peoples, human rights are not justice.
The film Avatar, which was a global phenomenon, is another sign that our current world-historical conjuncture increasingly throws up more and more representations about indigenous peoples and indigenous issues. It becomes imperative and difficult, however, to distinguish between what is oppositional, alternative, or a new formation of the dominant. It seems relatively easy to place events like the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of the Mother Earth, hosted in April 2010 in Bolivia by President Evo Morales, which countered the corporate-friendly model of the previous 2010 Copenhagen Climate Summit with a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth proclaiming nature be granted rights that protect ecosystems from annihilation.
But other seemingly positive developments are more ambiguous. To coincide with the ninth session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in April 2010, New Zealand announced its support for UNDRIP; the United States and Australia followed some months later; and Canada has declared that it will endorse certain articles of UNDRIP “in a manner fully consistent with Canada’s constitution and laws.” What is to be made of this? For UNDRIP to be given the force of law, state-recognition is essential. Yet in giving that recognition, there always is the danger that states will limit, shape, and condition the articles of the declaration to conform to state-derived criteria and to increase state capacity to administer indigenous issues. Uses of multiculturalism against the grain present similar risks. These dilemmas remind us that the work of materializing culture or knowledge is never complete, and they underscore the importance of the American Indian knowledge-making center that Sean Teuton imagines as he calls for Native scholars to “rematriate” critical discourses by considering their identification with tribal lands as an “umbilicus” for knowledge making.24 The trade routes Allison Hedge Coke honors and imagines as expansive, as changing social relations through reciprocal exchange yet remaining within an indigenous inscription of a global system, give a sense of how circulations within and between such centers might be grounded yet remain in motion.