Manu Karuka’s Empire’s Tracks is one of the most pedagogical books I’ve ever read. In addition to its important scholarly contributions, the text reads through the voice of a dedicated teacher. It isn’t that the content knowledge or intellectual substance is secondary to the pedagogical structure but rather that form and function operate seamlessly and with a unique grace. While the main focus of this review will be on the teachings of the book, I begin with a summary of its major insights and then move to discuss how they are carried through or “taught” through the text.
In Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad, Manu Karuka disrupts the traditional notion of scholarship as a mode of discovery and novelty and offers instead an intellectual meditation on imperialism. In essence, he argues that imperialism, not nationalism, is the more appropriate analytic through which to understand US state formation. Within this narrative the transcontinental railroad serves as both material artifact and “phantom subject” constitutive with the rise of empire. As an artifact, it symbolizes the violence of the “war-finance nexus” through which the so-called closing of the American frontier was accomplished. As a phantom subject, the railroad serves as the backdrop for historicizing and theorizing US expansionism as imperialism, contingent on the corporate-military occupation of Indigenous nations. Karuka draws a through line across multiple fields, systems, and structures within American studies: settler colonialism, colonialism, historical materialism, Indigenous feminism, Marxism, racism, white supremacy, slavery, genocide, and labor history. By refusing the staid and insufficient boundaries of “history” or “theory,” Empire’s Tracks performs a unique praxis of relationality and thus marks the beginning of its teachings.
As I often explain to my students, teaching is different from telling. It’s not effective to just go into class, tell students something, and expect them to retain it, even if some might manage to do so. Effective teaching requires much more. Since the depths of the perennial problematic “What constitutes good teaching?” exceed the parameters of this essay, I’ll focus on three key components and the ways in which Empire’s Tracks exemplifies them: repetition, rhythm, and relationality.
First, repetition. Good teaching requires repetition. Students are much more apt to retain key concepts, ideas, patterns, theories, terms, and principles if they are repeated in different ways multiple times. Karuka practices the art of repetition through the book’s central organizing themes: continental imperialism, countersovereignty, and modes of relationship. He doesn’t simply repeat these themes throughout the text but rather reiterates them using widely varied evidentiary (re)sources (e.g., the archive, rumor), which deepens our understanding at every turn. Moreover, while the themes function as the persistent anchors, Karuka masterfully interweaves additional concepts under and over them. For example, capitalism is a key term and integral feature of all three themes. When woven through the themes of continental imperialism, countersovereignty, and relationship, capitalism is illuminated as so much more than an economic system. It is laid bare as an ontology that aggressively and violently transmuted (Indigenous) peoples and bodies into subjects of speculation and risk management.
A second key component of effective teaching is rhythm. It was only after I read Empire’s Tracks that I learned Manu was a music major in college. Once I did, his pedagogical style of writing made even more sense. Just as in a piece of music, the flow and cadence of a classroom matters. When teachers provide students with regular rests and refrains, they are more apt to absorb—to feel—what is being taught. Certainly, the thick prose of Empire’s Tracks expresses its own rhythm, but its density would lose effectiveness without some relief. Karuka provides this through his elegant composition and reliance on familiar refrains: maps at the end of nearly every chapter; pithy subtitles and headings; short, repetitive phrases; and judicious use of narrative. The effect is such that by the end of the text, you can’t help but remember and learn its core teachings: imperialism as the war-finance nexus, expansionist versus expansive modes of being, countersovereignty as a claim and expression of settler anxiety, the complex and imbricated histories of Chinese workers and Indigenous nations, and the function of simple and triumphalist histories as alibis to colonialist violence.
The third component of effective teaching is relationality. Good teachers know that real learning only happens in and through relationship. Beyond “safe spaces” and multicultural celebrations, classrooms that are built on good relations require critical reflexivity and confrontations with unvarnished truths. They require ethical systems of community and individual accountability. Finally, as an Indigenous scholar, I would argue that they require processes of knowledge transmission and production that aren’t just “diverse” and “representative” but also anticolonial and anticapitalist. This is perhaps where I appreciate the contributions of Empire’s Tracks the most.
Karuka has gifted us a book that is not only about Indigenous peoples but is an enactment of Indigenous methodology, which is to say he writes in a way that brings to life the notion of indigeneity as an episteme of relationality. For example, counter to most texts of American history, in Empire’s Tracks the United States is peripheral to the story. Literally, the text physically centers the chapters on the Lakota, Chinese, Pawnee, and Cheyenne, which are then bookended by his theorizations of countersovereignty and decolonization. Moreover, rather than engage critique as an imperial praxis (taking direct aim at history as a mode of conquest), Karuka decenters the discourses of His-tory, opting instead to foreground story and rumor as feminist, decolonial technologies of refusal and restoration. Finally, he decenters whiteness by articulating the complex relations between Chinese and Indigenous peoples outside of the colonialist gaze. For example, we learn that Paiutes marched in anti-Chinese rallies and that Chinese sold Paiutes opium and alcohol. In so doing, Karuka doesn’t replicate the homogenizing and sanitizing functions of Manichean histories that depict Indigenous and marginalized peoples as essentialist and unagentic victims.
In addition to engaging a praxis of relationality, Karuka theorizes colonial and decolonial “modes of relationship” as competing epistemes and moral visions. First, colonialist relations are theorized as modes of detachment: as the repetitive failure or utter lack of relationship that make violence possible. In other words, the precondition of oppression, destruction, domination, and other forms of violence is the rupturing of relationships. In contrast, he theorizes decolonial or Indigenous modes of relationship that center connection and reciprocity. Below is a table that attempts to capture the various terms he uses to describe the different modes:
|Colonial modes of relationship||Decolonial modes of relationship|
Less life in place
More life in place
When these terms are positioned side by side, the crosswalk between decolonial modes of relationship and teaching seems more possible.
Recently, I participated in a workshop entitled Hacer Escuela, which roughly translates to “to make school.” Teachers, scholars, and organizers came together to reimagine processes of education and schooling grounded in our collective liberation. The operating assumption was that substantive and lasting change requires the cultivation of anti-imperialist habits of thought and practice. That is, as teachers, we either construct spaces of learning that sustain (colonialist) relations of domination—technologies of expansionism, social control, punishment, competition—that, as Karuka surmises, interrupt thinking, block consciousness, and function as modes of accumulation. Or we can create spaces of learning that cultivate (decolonial) relations of reciprocity—learning through observation and expansive ways of thinking and being. Empire’s Tracks goes a long way toward guiding us in the direction of reciprocity, helping to cultivate processes of decolonial world-making.
Sandy Grande is a professor of political science and Native American and Indigenous studies at the University of Connecticut with affiliations in American studies, philosophy, and women and gender studies. Her research and teaching interfaces Native American and Indigenous studies with critical theory toward the development of more nuanced analyses of the colonial present. She was recently awarded the Ford Foundation Senior Fellowship (2019–20) for a project on Indigenous elders and aging. Her book Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought was published in a tenth-anniversary edition, and a Portuguese translation is anticipated to be published in Brazil in 2021. She is also a founding member of New York Stands with Standing Rock, a group of scholars and activists that published the “Standing Rock Syllabus.” In addition to her academic and organizing work, she has provided eldercare for her parents for over ten years and remains the primary caregiver for her ninety-two-year-old father.