Rebecca Fullan’s Opening Remarks- J. Kehaulani Kauanui’s Seminar

Hi all!  It’s been a literal whirlwind of a semester since this really lovely visit from J. Kehaulani Kauanui, but I thought I would finally share my opening remarks, at least a few minutes before the next large Revolutionizing American Studies lecture!  Here they are:

At the end of “Colonialism in Equality: Hawaiian Sovereignty and the Question of U.S. Civil Rights,” J. Kehaulani Kauanui writes about ways of changing the relationship between the United States and indigenous nations:

…let us imagine the U.S. nation-state doing the following: honoring and abiding by all of the treaties signed between the U.S. government and indigenous nations; returning all of the national parks to the indigenous peoples from whom they were taken; federally recognizing all tribal nations and entities who seek this acknowledgement… and restoring all previously terminated tribes with federal acknowledgement.  None of these four suggestions need be tied to the goal of indigenous nations becoming nation-states, but if these sound absurd, it is only because of the conditions brought about by settler colonialism this proposal seeks to devastate.  Indeed, the Untied States will not take action on any of these at this particular moment in time because the U.S. State would collapse. This is a crisis that is inherent to the U.S. nation state (647-648).

The crisis inherent to the U.S. nation state is something that Professor Kauanui makes strikingly visible in the three pieces we have read for today.  I read this inherent crisis as meaning both that the U. S. nation state cannot exist without these conditions of disenfranchisement, deracination, and destruction of indigenous peoples, both symbolically and bodily, and that it also cannot exist without this crisis existing.  It is an essential crisis, of which one of its attributes may be creating an appearance of resolution or ending, but which can never be ended within the existence of the nation-state, because the crisis shapes the bounds of the nation-state itself.  This is a big claim, but it is borne out through the details of political, legal, and cultural responses seen in Professor Kauanui’s work.  One of the most telling details to me, mentioned in both “Colonialism in Equality” and “Hawaiian Nationhood, Self Determination, and International Law,” is that the four United Nations members to vote against the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples were Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States.  These votes make clear that the inherent crisis is not just a way of thinking about settler colonial states, but is a lively, direct, pressing influence on the behaviors of those states, no matter how muted the discussion or how prevalent the myth of resolution may be.

In “Hawaiian Nationhood, Self Determination, and International Law,” Professor Kauanui is more specific about how exactly this kind of crisis is present in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states both that ‘indigenous peoples have the right of self determination’ and that the declaration is not “authorizing or encouraging” dismemberment of currently recognized states. As demonstrated by her example of the ways in which it would threaten U.S. sovereignty if the Navajo Nation sought independence, both indigenous self-determination and the absolute continuity of recognized sovereign states cannot happen fully at the same time, suggesting that contradiction is a characteristic of the inherent crisis of settler states.

The inherent, ongoing crisis and cyclical self-contradiction that these sets of examples put forth as the condition of the settler state are nicely congruent with what Professor Kauanui and Patrick Wolfe discuss in their interview “Settler Colonialism Then and Now,” in which settler colonialism is framed as a “practice” rather than an “event.”  I love the term practice because it encapsulates the ongoing nature of settler colonialism, and demonstrates how people are wrapped up in the structure of it with or without consent or understanding, but also focuses on the idea of repeated thinking and doing—if I practice something, I do it.  If I engage in a practice I must do a repeated action, but one that may change its shape over time.  To see settler colonialism in this way allows us to begin to perceive the nature and meaning of the inherent crisis of indigenous sovereignty and existence as that which creates the ever-enacted, often rhetorically shifting practice of how a settler state attempts to embody itself.  I see the “genocidal logic” of the use of blood quantum to determine and police Native Hawaiian identity as a practice of genocide on the level of thought-structures and what is possible to be imagined.

One thing that Professor Kauanui’s work does as a whole is present prismatic slices of how the logics, laws, and policies coming out of the practice of settler colonialism fail to constitute indigenous identity in a livable way or a way that contains even the possibility of sovereignty.  American civil rights discourse and laws cannot adequately address the sovereignty claims of the Kanaka Maoli, nor can the concept of race (and its attendant laws and practices), nor can the functions of international law under the U.N., because all of these operate out of practices and logics that do not encompass enough of the details of Kanaka Maoli history to respond to it as a whole, so justice is always truncated in how these structures interpret the past and the present.  Perhaps even more importantly, all of these ways of structuring understanding and policy can, and in the case of the Kanaka Maoli, do participate in the genocidal logic that is, perhaps, the most pervasive response to the never-ending crisis of the settler-colonial state.

How, then, to disrupt this practice or to practice something else?  By demonstrating the inadequacy of various U.S. and international ways of imagining and responding to the Kanaka Maoli, Professor Kauanui takes away the border-markers of our possible ways of seeing race, indigeneity, law, sovereignty, justice, etc. within the essential crisis that constitutes a settler colonial nation state.  It’s not that these concepts have no meaning, but that they must be expanded and re-imagined in order for us to perceive with any clarity where we are and how we might proceed without blindly (and blindingly) repeating the practices that got us here in the first place.  At the end of “Colonialism in Equality,” Professor Kauanui says that the only way to make the UN Declaration on indigenous rights a real “victory” is to “work to give it meaning and substance,” which in context implies that the crisis of the U.S. and other settler colonial nation states must be addressed outside of its own logic and self-definition.  This idea is also present at the end of “Hawaiian Nationhood” in the proposal that “the combination of international law and honest bilateral dialogue might be the only venue open for redress” in terms of Hawaiian sovereignty.  Bilateral, in this case, refers to the U.S. government and Kanaka Maoli representatives.  In other words, everyone involved in this crisis must speak directly to each other to have a hope of proceeding beyond the terms defined by the settler colonial nation state.  I’m also extremely interested in the “anxiety of settler colonial societies” about the perpetual crisis of Indigenous sovereignty, which Professor Kauanui and Professor Wolfe discuss in their interview: Wolfe says “it has huge political potential” (251), and I am eager to discuss the shape of that potential.  The poem “Thinking about Hawaiian Identity” by Maile Kehaulani Sing, which Professor Kauanui uses as an epigraph for her book Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity, ends with the lines “Hawaiian entitlement to be free/ From the thick of/ American fantasy.” Each of these proposals, ideas, and ways of seeing addresses how we might learn to practice differently, but it’s a question we must consistently readdress from different angles, as long as we exist within this crisis, moving fluidly between the realm of what can be imagined and that of what can be done—together, these will be our practice, whether we see it and will it, or not.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.