Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination

Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination

by Mark Rifkin

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What does it mean to say that Native peoples exist in the present?  In Beyond Settler Time Mark Rifkin investigates the dangers of seeking to include Indigenous peoples within settler temporal frameworks. Claims that Native peoples should be recognized as coeval with Euro-Americans, Rifkin argues, implicitly treat dominant non-native ideologies and institutions as the basis for defining time itself. How, though, can Native peoples be understood as dynamic and changing while also not assuming that they belong to a present inherently shared with non-natives? Drawing on physics, phenomenology, queer studies, and postcolonial theory, Rifkin develops the concept of "settler time" to address how Native peoples are both consigned to the past and inserted into the present in ways that normalize non-native histories, geographies, and expectations. Through analysis of various kinds of texts, including government documents, film, fiction, and autobiography, he explores how Native experiences of time exceed and defy such settler impositions. In underscoring the existence of multiple temporalities, Rifkin illustrates how time plays a crucial role in Indigenous peoples’ expressions of sovereignty and struggles for self-determination.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822373421
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 02/02/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 645 KB

About the Author

Mark Rifkin is Director of the Women's and Gender Studies Program and Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro and the author of several books, including Settler Common Sense: Queerness and Everyday Colonialism in the American Renaissance.

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Beyond Settler Time

Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination

By Mark Rifkin

Duke University Press

All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7342-1



For things to be simultaneous, they must be situated within a single frame of reference, in the sense that there is not an absolute time against which all events can be measured. With respect to the contemporaneity of non-natives and Indigenous peoples, the frame for thinking their synchronicity usually is provided by settler discourses, structures, and perceptions. More than offering invidious portraits of Indians as backward and disappearing, non-native accounts, governmental and popular, treat the space of the United States as a given in which to set the unfolding of events, and in this way the political union functions as something of an atemporal container for the occurrences, movements, conjunctures, periodicities, and pulsations of history, providing the background against which the movement of time can be registered. Native activists and intellectuals have argued against the idea of inclusion within the United States, understanding that gesture as an erasure of the specificity of Indigenous geopolitical claims, rights to self-determination, autochthonous existence as polities distinct from the settler state, and, perhaps most pointedly, the ways the colonial violence of settler rule has worked through forced incorporation of Indigenous peoples into the "domestic" space of the nation. Yet the insistence that Native people(s) occupy a singular present with non-natives and that the notion of being-in-time or the potential for change remain contingent on belonging to that shared, unified "now" (which includes a shared "then" of the past) seems to eerily resemble the representation of Indigenous populations and territories as necessarily part of the United States. Asserting Indigenous people's and peoples' presence in the present, as opposed to casting them as anachronisms, does not necessarily redress the violence perpetrated through the organization of history around the coordinates of settler occupation — the treatment of non-native temporalities as the baseline for marking Native being-in-time.

Rather than approaching time as an abstract, homogeneous measure of universal movement along a singular axis, we can think of it as plural, less as a temporality than temporalities. From this perspective, there is no singular unfolding of time, but, instead, varied temporal formations that have their own rhythms — patterns of consistency and transformation that emerge immanently out of the multifaceted and shifting sets of relationships that constitute those formations and out of the interactions among those formations. As V. F. Cordova observes, "time is an abstraction derived from the fact that there is motion and change in the world." U.S. settler colonialism produces its own temporal formation, with its own particular ways of apprehending time, and the state's policies, mappings, and imperatives generate the frame of reference (such as plotting events with respect to their place in national history and seeing change in terms of forms of American progress). More than just affecting ideologies or discourses of time, that network of institutionalized authority over "domestic" territory also powerfully shapes the possibilities for interaction, development, and regularity within it. Such imposition can be understood as the denial of Indigenous temporal sovereignty, in the sense that one vision or way of experiencing time is cast as the only temporal formation — as the baseline for the unfolding of time itself. However, such compulsory interpellation of Natives into U.S. life is never fully accomplished nor fully able to displace Indigenous temporal orientations.

To speak of temporal orientation suggests the ways that time can be regarded less as a container that holds events than as potentially divergent processes of becoming. Being temporally oriented suggests that one's experiences, sensations, and possibilities for action are shaped by the existing inclinations, itineraries, and networks in which one is immersed, turning toward some things and away from others. More than a question of relations in space, orientation involves reiterated and nonconscious tendencies, suggesting ways of inhabiting time that shape how the past moves toward the present and future. In Queer Phenomenology Sara Ahmed asks, "What does it mean to be oriented? How do we begin to know or to feel where we are, or even where we are going, by lining ourselves up with the features of the grounds we inhabit, the sky that surrounds us, or the imaginary lines that cut through maps?"; she observes, "The direction we take excludes things for us, before we even get there," adding, "Depending on which way one turns, different worlds might even come into view. If such turns are repeated over time, then bodies acquire the very shape of such direction." Being oriented, having a feeling of place and self in relation to other places and selves as well as a feeling of where one is going and the pace at which one is heading there, entails moving in particular directions in line with extant patterns. This persistent (and largely unwilled) regeneration of continuity not only happens "in time" but is the substance, feel, and force of time unfolding. If one's perception of the world might be quite different depending on where one turns, we might understand the paths traced out by one's orientations — following those particular paths in those specific ways — as giving rise to a kind of temporality, qualitatively distinguishable from other experiences of time. We further might understand collective modes of orientation as a temporal formation that has its own frame of reference and processes of becoming.

Native peoples remain oriented in relation to collective experiences of peoplehood, to particular territories (whether or not such places are legally recognized as reservations or given official trust status), to the ongoing histories of their inhabitance in those spaces, and to histories of displacement from them. Such orientations open up "different worlds" than those at play in dominant settler orderings, articulations, and reckonings of time. Developing such notions of temporal orientation and multiplicity opens the potential for conceptualizing Native continuity and change in ways that move beyond the modern/traditional binary; that do not take non-native frameworks as the self-evident basis for approaching Indigenous forms of persistence, adaptation, and innovation; and that enable consideration of temporal sovereignty, how sensations and articulations of time take part in Indigenous peoples' operation as polities and their pursuit of self-determination. As Deborah Miranda observes with respect to the history of her people (the Esselen), "Story, like culture, is constantly moving. It is a river where no gallon of water is the same gallon it was one second ago. Yet it is still the same river.... Even if the whole is in constant change. In fact, because of that constant change." What does it mean to consider Native temporalities as having their own flow — as coherent yet changing, affected by other flows but not the same as them? In this way Beyond Settler Time explores how Native peoples' varied experiences of duration can remain nonidentical with respect to the dynamics of settler temporal formations, indicating ways of being-in-time that are not reducible to participation in a singular, given time — a unitary flow — largely contoured by non-native patterns and priorities.

Rather than marking an absolute distinction between Natives and non-natives, suggesting that there are unbreachable barriers that generate utterly incommensurable and hermetically sealed Indian and white forms of experience, I am suggesting the presence of discrepant temporalities that can be understood as affecting each other, as all open to change, and yet as not equivalent or mergeable into a neutral, common frame — call it time, modernity, history, or the present. The aim is not to search for an authentic Indigenous conception of time as against degrading forms of settler influence. The effects of non-native expropriation, superintendence, and exploitation can be understood as intimate parts of Native experiences of time and becoming, as contributing to Indigenous orientations but in ways that exceed the paths of development envisioned by such interventions and invasions. Instead of juxtaposing the past and the present in order to preserve the former from the ravages of the latter, I am suggesting the importance of attending to Native conceptualizations, articulations, and impressions of time that do not easily fit within a framework explicitly or implicitly oriented around settler needs, claims, and norms — a pluralization of time that facilitates Indigenous peoples' expressions of self-determination.

In this way I seek to offer ways of marking Native peoples' translation into an account of time already oriented around settlement. My focus on the force, effects, and limits of temporal inclusion is not in the interest of authenticating certain ways of becoming as truly Native, or of invalidating others as a version of false consciousness. Instead, my aim lies in trying to open greater conceptual and discursive room for addressing time in ways that avoid the following: falling back into the dichotomization of tradition and modernization, mandating that Native modes of being-in-time be understood as inherently occupying an experience of the present shared with non-natives, implicitly distinguishing between beliefs about time and its supposed universal facts, and insisting on the adoption of settler modes of time as the real in order to engage with Euro-American historicism(s). There is an inherently speculative quality to what I'm doing. The position I am taking up is negative dialectical and offered in solidarity. Dale Turner observes, "The project of unpacking and laying bare the meaning and effects of colonialism will open up the physical and intellectual space for Aboriginal voices." Beyond Settler Time is such an effort "of unpacking and laying bare" from the perspective of a non-native, highlighting the violence of extant forms of temporal recognition (and their de facto modes of translation). The critical question, then, is, Does this critical orientation open useful intellectual, imaginative, and/or affective potentials? The materials I work with in this study are intended to be generative for exploring the interpretive possibilities of this mode of analysis — investigating what intellectual and political possibilities are opened through this way of approaching the question of time. In this sense I'm offering less an explanation than a hermeneutic, one that emerges out of a careful and ongoing engagement with Native texts and Native scholars and that hopefully can contribute to the pursuit of Indigenous self-determination by proposing additional conceptual tools for marking the force, effects, and endurance of settlement. In this vein my insistence on the potential distinction between Native and non-native experiences of time may be understood as aiming to facilitate possibilities for temporal sovereignty.

Modernity/ies, Temporal Recognition, and the Limits of "Now"

What does it mean to be recognized as existing in time? The representation of Native peoples as either having disappeared or being remnants on the verge of vanishing constitutes one of the principal means of effacing Indigenous sovereignties. Such a portrayal of Indigenous temporal stasis or absence erases extant forms of occupancy, governance, and opposition to settler encroachments. Moreover, it generates a prism through which any evidence of such survival will be interpreted as either vestigial (and thus on the way to imminent extinction) or hopelessly contaminated (as having lost — or quickly losing — the qualities understood as defining something, someone, or some space as properly "Indian" in the first place). These kinds of elisions and anachronizations can be understood as a profound denial of Native being. They perform a routine and almost ubiquitous excision of Indigenous persons and peoples from the flux of contemporary life, such that they cannot be understood as participants in current events, as stakeholders in decision making, and as political and more broadly social agents with whom non-natives must engage. This making of Indians into ghostly remainders enacts what Kevin Bruyneel has referred to as "colonial time," in which "temporal boundaries" are constructed between "an 'advancing' people and a 'static' people, locating the latter out of time," and, within this dynamic, "increasingly ... tribal sovereignty [appears] as a political expression that is out of (another) time, and therefore a threat to contemporary American political life and political space." The temporal trick whereby Indians are edited out of the current moment — or cast as inherently anachronistic — emerges out of the refusal to accept the (geo)political implications of persistent Indigenous becoming, the ways that the presentness of Native peoples challenges settler claims to possession now and for the future. As Jean O'Brien observes in Firsting and Lasting, her study of nineteenth-century town histories in New England, "non-Indians refused to regard culture change as normative for Indian peoples"; "Indians, then, can never be modern." However, is acknowledgment of Native timeliness the same as according Indigenous peoples status as modern? In what ways is conceptualizing Native being-in-time as the inhabiting of modernity (or a shared present with non-natives) equivalent to a bid for inclusion within settler modes of recognition? How might an implicit imperative to become temporally intelligible to non-natives limit possibilities for envisioning other Indigenous experiences of time and expressions of temporal sovereignty?

The pursuit of recognition by the settler state often results in a translation of Indigenous histories, modes of collectivity, and relations to place into forms that better fit extant legal and administrative frames. Official non-native discourses themselves employ temporal narratives that produce limited visions of Native collective selfhood. In Native Acts, Joanne Barker argues, "Native traditions have been fixed in an authentic past and then used as the measure of a cultural-as-racial authenticity in the present," adding that "through the discourses of recognition, U.S. national narrations represent recognition as an expected outcome of Native cultural authenticity." She later observes, "If Native peoples are to secure the recognition and protection of their legal status and rights as defined therein, they must be able to demonstrate their aboriginality — as pursuit, as essence, as a truth that transcends," and this standard "makes it impossible for Native peoples to narrate the historical and social complexities of cultural exchange, change, and transformation — to claim cultures and identities that are conflicted, messy, uneven, modern, technological, mixed." To be authentic means to preserve forms of tradition that emanate from the past in pristine ways; that performance of stasis is the condition of possibility for being accorded status as proper Indians. Such enactments of aboriginality explicitly and implicitly serve as the basis for (grudging, partial, and circumscribed) governmental acknowledgment of Native sovereignty. From this perspective, being recognized as Indian means staging a version of pastness that disavows the "complexities" of Native life, including "the historical realities of accident, succession, alienation, passion, personal conflict, dissension, and disparity." Miranda wonders, "Those who will not change do not survive; but who are we, when we have survived?" and if as part of that process of survival, as she says, "my tribe must reinvent ourselves — rather than try to copy what isn't there in the first place" — that very process of reinvention in relation to changing circumstances can become the basis for declaring that a people has ceased to exist as such.

If Indigenous peoples are called on to embody an older and purer version of themselves (and understood as actually descended from groups identified as Native only when they do so), the alternative to such time warping seems to lie in a turn to history. Yet what is the relation of history — the narration of the connections among the past, present, and future — to settler institutionalities and imperatives? Viewing Natives as being historical, in the sense of acknowledging Native existence in and change over time, includes addressing the effects of settler colonialism on Native lifeways, choices, and modes of collective self-expression and organization. That awareness of how Native people(s) are affected by the passage of time — or, more precisely, of the operation of Native processes of becoming that are animated by the multifaceted and shifting social, political, and environmental networks in which they are enmeshed — often is portrayed as participation in a singular history alongside non-natives. In Indians in Unexpected Places, Philip Deloria sets out "to consider the kinds of frames that have been placed around a shared past," and later, noting the similarity of patterns of life and material culture among Indians and rural whites in the early twentieth century, he observes that "otherwise critical Indian agents ..., when pressed, sometimes confessed that Indians and non-Indians were experiencing the world together." This insistence on synchrony, interaction, and co-implication in unfolding events works against the denial of Native persistence as well as the attempt to freeze Indigenous persons and peoples into a simulacrum of pastness, a fantasized construction of Indian realness cast as immanently tied to a bygone era.


Excerpted from Beyond Settler Time by Mark Rifkin. Copyright © 2017 DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface  vii
Acknowledgments  xv
1. Indigenous Orientations  1
2. The Silence of Ely S. Parker  49
3. The Duration of the Land  95
4. Ghost Dancing at Century's End  129
Coda. Deferring Juridical Time  179
Notes  193
Bibliography  241
Index  269

What People are Saying About This

Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories - Elizabeth Freeman

"Beyond Settler Time is a magnificent book. Already at the very top of his field, Mark Rifkin clarifies with depth and lucidity how Native American genocide was achieved through the violent imposition of settler time, while showing us how to conceptualize temporalities based in the Native American experience without resorting to models of tradition or modernity. His phenomenological approach, combined with historical rigor, careful readings of aesthetic and documentary texts, and astute political analysis, makes for a very illuminating read."

Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations - Mishuana Goeman

"Mark Rifkin's compelling book breaks new grounds and new temporalities, serving to further illuminate the ways that settler colonialism structures the political and everyday life of Indigenous peoples in the United States. As with Rifkin's previous work, Beyond Settler Time is a must-read for those in Indigenous studies, settler colonial studies, and queer studies."

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