Theory Teacher's Blog

Racializing Assemblages, Native American Identity, and the Canon of Saints

Two weeks ago, somewhere up in the air, mid-flight from Sri Lanka to the Philippines, Pope Francis announced his intention to canonize Junipero Serra. You can read a transcript of his in-flight statements on the Pope’s website. As all Californians well know, Father Serra was the Jesuit priest who established the many missions along the west coast, after which many of California’s cities are now named. The purpose of the missions was to evangelize the diverse Native American nations that densely populated the region while, at the same time, Spain conquered the territory. As a child growing up in southern California, I remember visiting the mission at San Juan Capistrano, famous for the many swallows that nest in its quaint and well-preserved colonial-era buildings. I also remember, some time around the third or fourth grade, my entire class had to build little mission models out of playdough. Serra’s legacy is quite controversial, since the European occupation of California meant enslavement, displacement, rape, and death on a mass scale for the indigenous peoples there. The Catholic Church’s official position admits the atrocities committed during the colonial era but maintains that Serra’s role was benevolent. Others argue that the missions were instruments of colonial violence. The Pope’s declaration surprised even Serra supporters, provoking a range of opinions, from the happy response in the Catholic News to the angry response from Native Americans published both in the on-line Native American magazine Indian Country and the Los Angeles Times.

One remark in the Los Angeles Times op-ed struck me, and in this blog I want to think a bit more on its point. The author, Karin Klein, wrote, “Because the missions mixed different Native American groups together and forced all of them to give up much of their cultural identity, many of these groups cannot meet the requirements of continuous cultural and geographical identity required to be federally recognized tribes, with the many benefits such recognition bestows.” The key question here is the politics of identity and the complex legal apparatus that has grown up around it. The Bureau of Indian Affairs insists on the distinctness of separate Indian tribes or nations and the criteria for identity that include blood quantum, but the practice of colonial violence had the opposite effect, either codifying “Indians” all together as a single racial category or attempting their total erasure through genocidal strategies. The situation for some Native Americans is a paradoxical double-bind involving contradictory policies and articulations of cultural identity (e.g., on the one hand racial, but on the other hand tribal/national.) In this context, the question of identity and the politics of Serra’s legacy are very complex.

Coincidentally, about a week or so before the Pope’s announcement, during my winter break, I happened to read two things relevant to the op-ed in the L.A. Times and the debate about Father Serra’s canonization. One is a PhD dissertation in psychology on “Tribal Enrollment, Blood Quantum, and Identity among the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe of Western Montana,” written by Kimberly Nenemay, who is a member of the Salish and a practicing psychologist in New York. The other is a new work of cultural theory, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human, published last August by Alexander Weheliye, a professor of African American studies at Northwestern University.

For her study, Dr. Nenemay interviewed nineteen women, all tribal members and all of them mothers, about how they felt about their families, their tribal affiliation, their fluency in the Salish language, their experience on the reservation, their commitment to both Christian and Native religious practices, and ultimately their feelings about their identity. The interviews and individual stories of these women provide considerable evidence for the point made all too briefly by Klein in the L.A. Times. Significantly, while the study was taking place, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes were in the midst of an intense debate about the criteria for membership, which they put to a formal vote in January of 2003. At that time, and still now, one must demonstrate at lease “one quarter blood quantum” to be legally considered a member. At issue in the debate was families who are “split” — one sibling eligible for membership while another sibling is not. Complicating the issue further was the question of inheritance, since in some cases, the children of the women were not eligible for tribal membership, in spite of how active the individuals may be in the culture of the community. Since membership confers several privileges and benefits such as the ownership of tribal land, access to health care, and participation in tribal governance, individuals often had complex thoughts and feelings not only about their own identities as tribal members but also about the identities of their children. As the study quoted the nineteen women at length and narrated their responses to a variety of questions, it richly illustrated the diversity of views that exist on that reservation and most strikingly the ways in which some women were thoughtful and self-conscious about having contradictory ideas and conflicting emotions. Some women considered “blood quantum” to be in some ways an important and in other ways an unimportant aspect of their identity; some also noted its effect on their relationships with potential husbands and how they raised their children. Almost all had experienced some form of discrimination and questioning of their identity both on and off the reservation as they navigated the various opportunities and challenges presented by their multiple identities. One example of this discrimination that came up repeatedly was the abuse and condescension from the Catholic missionaries and the white teachers at the mission schools. Complicating the question of identity still further were individuals whose ancestry may include different Native American tribes, so while they may be more than half Indian in terms of blood quantum, they are less than a quarter for any specific tribe and consequently do not qualify for membership.

In terms of what all this means both for clinical practice and for public policy, the conclusions Nenemay draws from the study are disappointingly brief and incomplete, but important and deserving of more critical thought. Psychologically, we see that identity is a complex assemblage of legal definitions about blood quantum, access to benefits, cultural practices, and family relationships, so that each individual may have very different experiences of their identity. (The term “assemblage” is mine, not Nenemay’s, but it agrees with her argument about the social construction of identity, and I will explain its implication further in the next paragraph.) Politically, we see the effects not only on individuals but also on the social fabric of the community, and so Nenemay suggests that, however the tribe might ultimately vote on blood quantum, they should also address the psychological and social effects of this ruling, particularly with regard to the feeling of solidarity among both members and non-members as well as to the sense of security and personal options. Historically speaking, we see the contradictions of U.S. government policy, most especially the Dawes Act of 1887. After forcing Native Americans onto reservations, this act both undermined tribal governance and opened up that land to the possibility of white settlement by insisting that plots of land be privately owned by individuals rather than community owned — and therefore, able to be bought and sold. The obvious intent of the Act was to not only to encourage individuals to sell their land to white settlers but also to undermine political solidarity and create the economic conditions of land scarcity. It is this condition of scarcity (later including not just land but also health care and other government-subsidized programs) that is one of the motivating factors behind the “blood quantum” rule. Significantly, before the Dawes act, Native Americans understood their identity primarily in cultural terms, and it was common for tribes to adopt individuals from other tribes (including European, African, and Asian tribes.) But since the 1930s, the federal government has mandated that tribes define their membership in terms of blood.

It seems to me that, in a curious and significant way, the blood-quantum mandate actually correlates with the fungible-property mandate in the Dawes Act by linking blood to soil and by creating a condition that would motivate the confederated tribes to protect their limited assets by limiting membership even as individuals within the tribe might sell their land. From all of this, we can see the contradictions of American ideology and the conflicting demands of its policies. The American ideology of a universal and inclusive democracy of citizens grounded in private property is undermined by a land-grabbing territorialization of Native land that racializes “Indianness” as the antithetical “Other” of its own universal democracy and in doing so strictly defines the tribe in exclusive terms according to blood quantum. As a result, because the integrity of Native communities is threatened (literally “under siege” and in effect deterritorialized from its earlier forms of life), tribes have resorted to blood quantum and other political and cultural tactics to preserve and reterritorialize their identities in new, innovative ways.

Here I want to argue that the racializing assemblage of American policy is not simply something we can address through some sort of sensitivity to cultural difference. Rather, the implications of Nenemay’s study go far beyond what she is willing to say, because what we see between the lines of her many interviews are the ways in which there is a profoundly deep and paradoxical relation between liberal capitalism and the celebration of “cultural difference” that is the hallmark of multiculturalism. At the heart of the conundrum of “blood quantum” and tribal identity, as we see from the effects of the Dawes Act and the machinery of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is the paradox of capitalist property relations (including the many opportunities for jobs off the reservation as well as the artificial scarcity of resources on the reservation) and the identity politics around which minority populations galvanize in their struggle to survive. In other words, the conquering nation (America) can position itself as (theoretically) inclusive (anyone can be American), but the oppressed peoples invent new forms of exclusivity as a tactic of self defence, and as such, Native culture shifted over the course of the twentieth century from an adoptive, welcoming one to an exclusive blood-line. Beneath this dynamic, we can surmise that both the American and the Indian articulations of cultural identity are in some ways a mystification of the reality of property ownership, power relations, and the commercial expropriation of value from bodies.

Coming back to the Pope’s canonization, the question of whether Junipero Serra was a good guy or a bad guy is clearly too simplistic, but he most definitely was a cog in the violent, territorializing colonial machine and its racializing assemblage. However, his function was not simply vertical (the territorial conquest and deterritorialization of the Indians) but also horizontal (the innovation of new forms of life and community, a reterritorialization of Indian identity, and a hybridized Indian-Catholic culture.) Such horizontal connections are in some ways empowering for some Native Americans, giving them the tools to survive in the new political order, even if such connections are part of the same vertical structure that is oppressive. How might these terms give us a framework for analyzing the Pope’s decision to make Father Serra a member of the canon of saints. Normally a saint is canonized for performing miracles and introducing something new (a new “cult” or culture) to the church, but Father Serra did not perform miracles and is considered in church law to be a case of “equivalent canonization” which means that the Pope is acknowledging in hindsight something that already exists (an enduring “cult” or culture). In Serra’s case, I can only guess, the Pope is acknowledging the long term and lasting cultural effects of his evangelism. It is of course, also precisely these enduring effects that many (including myself) find so troubling.

As you might have guessed already from the words that I am putting in bold italics, I want to make the case in my blog for an engagement with the concepts developed by the professor of philosophy Gilles Deleuze and the practicing psychoanalyst Felix Guattari in their work of creative philosophy, A Thousand Plateaus. This is one of the works of philosophy that Dr. Weheliye both uses and critiques in Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human.

Weheliye’s project in Habeas Viscus is to engage in a full-frontal critique of western philosophy by taking on three of the most influential philosophers for his discipline of cultural studies: Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and the dynamic duo Deleuze and Guattari. His argument is that the work and methodologies of these philosophers have been adopted by the American academy as if they are universally applicable to all situations. As he glibly remarks, “judging from the writings of Deleuzians, once you’ve had D&G, you never go back” (referencing the well-known sexual joke that once you’ve had black, you never go back.) In contrast, the work by black feminists scholars such as Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter have been viewed as “particular” (rather than universal) and as such have been academically ghettoized as pertaining only to “black studies” or “women’s studies.” Weheliye’s argument is that the “racializing assemblage” is not peripheral or secondary to the work of Foucault, Agamben, and D&G, but actually central to it. What’s more, their work ought to be critically challenged and revised through the work of Spillers and Wynter to better account for the ways in which the marginalized and oppressed have productively engaged in the sort of cultural innovation and politically alternative forms of life called for — but never fully articulated or imagined — by Foucault, Agamben, and D&G. If you want to listen to him talking about his book, click here for the podcast on the Archipelgo Project.

His book is a tough read, and at this point, I don’t have time to work out the sections of his book that critique Foucault’s concept of “biopower” or Agamben’s concepts of “homo sacer” and “bare life,” so I will focus on D&G’s concept of the “assemblage” and how this all relates back to Nenemay’s study and the Pope’s decision to canonize the missionary Junipero Serra. For D&G, in chapter four of Thousand Plateaus that critiques structuralist linguistics, the “assemblage” (or agencement in French) is the relational arrangement of bodies, things, actions, representations, and speech in which different elements coalesce and recede in both productive and destructive ways. From my summary of Nenemay’s study, I think one can see how “identity” is actually an assemblage of legal, familial, cultural, and political structures that manifests itself in multiple ways. But merely pointing out that identity is culturally constructed through such assemblages doesn’t offer much insight into the contradictory ways in which that construction emerges and what effects it produces. D&G further analyze the working of this assemblage. Looking at the “horizontal” (or non-hiearchical and somewhat anarchic) connectivity of such assemblages and how they work in productive ways, D&G invent the phrases “machinic assemblages” (the intermingling of bodies, actions, and desires) and the “collective assemblage of enunciation” (the speech acts and representational communication produced by and yet also a part of the machinic assemblages). Their revision of structuralist linguistics posits language not as a superstructural representation of things via metaphor and metonymy but rather as one segment in a series of other segments and relations. But such assemblages are also subject to “vertical” (hierarchical) orderings and even violence, which they call territorialization, deterritorialization, and reterritorialization. As I aimed to illustrate earlier, one could consider Father Junipero Serra’s evangelism in relation to both the vertical territorial conquest and the horizontal openings of new identities and hybrid forms of culture.

Working from the perspective of black feminism, Weheliye approaches D&G in two ways, first by observing how essential and problematic the question of race is in their work — something that is often overlooked by the academy, he argues — and second by criticizing their all-too-easy celebration of racial mixture and innovative hybrid forms of culture, which doesn’t fully account for the structures of racial violence. (As a side criticism of Weheliye, one thing I want to briefly mention about the chapter of Thousand Plateaus  in which D&G analyze the assemblage, which is also the chapter that Weheliye quotes the most from, is that the two primary examples in that chapter are the work of Kafka, a Czech-speaking Jew writing in German, and the ways in which “Black English” has completely transformed mainstream English. It is somewhat strange that Weheliye ignores these examples, since they would seem to be the perfect test cases for his critique of racializing assemblages, but perhaps he leaves those examples out deliberately because acknowledging them might risk deflating the excitement over his rhetorical gesture that his book offers something new and that D&G don’t talk as much about race as they should. Whatever his motivation, the absence is odd.) Hence, by critiquing the “machinic assemblage” concept as a metaphor that is somewhat too fast (and perhaps too sci-fi), as if segments of society can so easily attach and detach from other segments of society like a machine, Weheliye revises D&G’s machinic assemblage to call it a “viscous assemblage” that emphasizes its slow viscosity and its fleshy aspects. The title of his book, Habeas Viscus literally translates as “you shall have the flesh” (in contrast to the legal doctrine of habeas corpus — you shall have the body). The flesh (viscus), its scar tissue that develops from wounds of centuries of racial violence, but also the ways in which flesh organizes itself: for example, the ways in which the mothers interviewed in Nenemay’s study might find meaningful connection with each other and their children that are perhaps more complex and more fleshy (habeas viscus) than the territorializing terms of multiculturalism and even the study itself, which was a series of interviews with individuals, rather than groups, that individualized the subjects and deterritorialized them from their subcultural connectivity and insisted on a territorial mapping of social relations in terms of multicultural identity.

If I had time, I would now try to offer a conclusion or say something clever about a novel or a poem by a Native American, perhaps Sherman Alexie’s famous novel, Reservation Blues, or the critically acclaimed movie based on Alexie’s writings, Smoke Signals (considering that the Spokane Tribe that Alexie belongs to and writes about is also Salish speaking, like Nenemay’s tribe), but my blog post is already a lot longer and more convoluted than I intended it to be, so I will stop here.



January 27, 2015 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks, Steve. About _Habeas Viscus_, I was curious to read it because I was wondering how one criticizes theories that are culturally specific, by which I mean theories that are generated within a specific cultural context and background, although still aiming at some sort of universal application (or, they wouldn’t really be of any general interest). I am even more curious now. As for D&G: is Weheliye aware that is the logo for Dolce & Gabbana?

    Comment by Barbara | January 30, 2015 | Reply

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