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What Must Be Done With Sovereignty?

Rejecting Recognition and the Ruse of Participation

Race/isms Book Forum is a new series aimed at bringing established and emerging voices together in conversation around recent work that critically engages our world’s racial scripts, past and present. The structure of the forum is straightforward. We invite three to four thinkers to grapple with a book, highlighting a section of it, and then provide the author(s) an opportunity to respond however they see fit. Published over several days, we seek and encourage dialogue that traverses the forum’s boundaries. Our desire is to have these conversations, and the books they’re based on, grow from and exceed what’s been written. The pursuit is possibility, not conclusion.

For our second installment, we feature and discuss Jaskiran Dhillon’s recently published ethnography: Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention. The discussion includes reflections by Melanie Yazzie, Shanya Cordis, and Sandra Harvey.

Jaskiran Dhillon’s Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention adds ethnographic testament to the increasing critiques of recognition and its failures to further the decolonial aims of Indigenous peoples. A politics of recognition refers to all of the colonial laws, policies, and traditions determining what it means to be Indigenous and how Indigenous peoples must relate to the state. In the present Canadian context, it aims to further so-called reconciliation between the state and First Nations peoples. However, because the colonizer sets the terms of this asymmetrical power relation, recognition cannot lead to a fundamental upending of colonial rule.

The book provides an insightful description of the current state of Canadian colonial governance, one that merges multiculturalism, or the celebration of racial and ethnic difference, with neo-liberalism, which prioritizes the individual and the privatization of public goods. Key to this brand of nation-building is a form of settler disavowal — one that not only relies on the fantasy of “non-encounter,” as Lorenzo Veracini called it, or terra nullius, as Dhillon describes it, but also on the settler fantasy that Indigenous peoples might themselves shore up the state by responding to the call to participate in its governance. Through participation in various social programs — the fantasy purports — Indigenous peoples become integrated and subsumed into the state as individual subjects rather than nations that question the legitimacy of the state itself.

This multicultural, integrationist sentiment provided the absurd opportunity for the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008 to extend a “Statement of Apology” for the violence of Canada’s residential school programs on the one hand and on the other, a year later in 2009, to boast to fellow colonial powers during the G20 summit that, Canadians “have no history of colonialism” (Dhillon 2017, 70).

With this as her backdrop Dhillon sketches the experiences of Indigenous youth in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada as they are targeted by state policies to promote Indigenous participation in social programming. National and provincial leaders reasoned that programs aiming to support “at-risk” First Nation youth were ineffective, in large measure, because of a lack of Indigenous collaboration. The argument officials provide is somewhat circular. For example, they blame high rates of school attrition among Indigenous youth on the Indigenous communities’ lack of engagement in schools. They make this argument, as Dhillon notes, despite the fact that schools suspend Indigenous youth at disproportionately higher rates than their non-Indigenous peers. The devolution of decision-making from the national level to the provincial level, and from the provincial level to the community leadership level, officials argue, provides for an opportunity to correct the problem as they have defined it.

However, contrary to its claims, the doctrine of participation extends the reach of the state further into Indigenous communities. Dhillon writes, “Participation… has, at a very fundamental level, been constructed by the state as a mechanism to recalibrate relations between the governing and the governed…[It] takes place within a context of settler colonialism that simultaneously distances the political and legal entity of Canada from its history of conquest while purposefully fostering a new national imaginary of the peaceful postcolonial” (2017, 21). Thus, the policy rejects very real Indigenous calls for collective “self-determination” and offers in its stead a perverse version of this in the shape of neo-liberal responsibility for self — that is, the expectation that each individual take responsibility for their own economic wellbeing. In so doing, the doctrine accomplishes two tasks, one at the level of the subject and the other at the level of “history.” It calls Indigenous peoples to assume the position of the individual citizen and, once accomplished, it denies any colonial relationship presently exists.

The move to create “the individual” designates and organizes difference within a nation-state. I argue one way this has been carried out is not necessarily new or neo-liberal at all. Take, for example, the process of becoming a racialized subject. On Turtle Island, colonial powers conceived of captive Africans and their descendants as raced peoples. Within this framework, blackness is reduced to a biological difference passed on through blood and located on the body. Managing difference in this way belies the fact that Afro-descendants are, in fact, colonized peoples and submits instead that they are simply differently raced individuals who may be subsumed into the settler state. Similarly, in the present case, if First Nation peoples are no longer nations but individuals, there is no longer a need for “decolonization.” Instead, there is only a need to better integrate a diversity of individuals — Black, Indigenous, etc. — into the whole.

In its neoliberal rendition, colonized people, rendered individuals before the state, are then open to risk management and opportunities for calculated and reasoned “choice.” Here Dhillon picks up on the language that the state uses to describe its colonial citizens, and in particular, the “at-risk” youth. She explains, “These young girls on the street were no longer registered…as young women with particular political identities or claims to stolen land, much less as embodying the possibility of Indigenous resurgence…Instead, they were socially (re)constituted by the state as racialized citizen subjects in desperate need of saving, a group of lost and misguided souls who had not yet capitalized on what their country had to offer” (2017, 85 my emphasis). Thus, race, risk, and choice must be understood together as core components of neoliberal colonial violence.

Risk brings together a particular political economic relationship of management, exchange, and trade-offs. Yet, there is a deceitful projection in which neoliberal discourse engages, I submit. It avoids considering the “risk” involved in the false promise of the state’s own sovereignty — based on a fantasy of terra nullius. Instead, it projects risk as emanating from the bodies of Indigenous peoples. This delusion adds fodder to the state policy of “devolution of responsibility” through participation. If the individual is the source of risk, then they, and not the state, must also be responsible for its management. Neoliberal discourse asserts that the state is at risk to the extent that individual citizens make poor life choices.

This displacement, then, provokes a series of assessments: What is the possible cost of reaching out to Indigenous youth and integrating them into the nation-state? What is this effort’s return on investment? The Indigenous subject becomes the stand-in for the risk facing the state, which in claiming sovereignty must constantly police its own borders, not simply in terms of territory but also in terms of bodies or people. It does this by constantly asking: Which racial subjects are worthy of inclusion?

Prairie Rising provides an important intervention by identifying the connections between neoliberal practices of public administration and colonial projects. This is a critical intersection that calls on scholars of neoliberalism to take seriously its political economic logic as part and parcel to on-going colonial relationships. Given this entanglement, we must understand Canada as a colonial, multicultural state that calls on the colonized (as well as the settlers) to manage themselves. In so doing, the state is able to disavow its ongoing conquest of First Nation peoples and their land.

The intervention, however, leaves us with a question about the status of sovereignty, as a concept, in relation to our various struggles for decolonization. That is, can we reject the politics of recognition and still hold on to an orientation that centers “sovereignty” as our political position or goal? Either way, it would do us well to work through the conceits of the concept of sovereignty and ask whether the term can ever be extricated or disentangled from a Western genealogy obsessed with policing borders. If so, on what basis? The creativity with which the youth in Dhillon’s book often practiced a politics of refusal (even as they interacted with the state) demonstrates that decolonization might involve an imaginative conceptual stance and practice aimed at troubling the idea of sovereignty as it emerges through the colonial project.

Sandra Harvey is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Her current book project is tentatively titled, Passing for Free, Passing for Sovereign: Blackness and the Formation of the Nation.

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