Off the Cuff: Kevin Bruyneel, Babson College Professor of Politics
Kevin Bruyneel is a politics professor at Babson College who currently studies the relationship between colonialism, race and collective memory. He recently published a book on these issues called The Third Space of Sovereignty. Bruyneel is currently researching the role of white settler memory in American politics and race relations. He led the lecture, “‘What Do You Mean We?’ — White Settler Memory, U.S. Race Politics and the ‘Faint Trace’ of Indigeneity” at Wilder Hall Monday afternoon.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your book The Third Space of Sovereignty about?
What I sought to do was to understand the modern — by that I mean [the] 1870s on — relationship between the U.S. government and indigenous peoples’ politics, and from a position of indigenous people not being wiped out or indigenous people being assimilated, but to understand that there were complications of understanding what an indigenous political claim is in the U.S. context. The “third space” really means that indigenous people were neither moving toward assimilation nor toward full statehood — that sovereignty has always been about, in some sense, challenging the dominant U.S. claim over their territory and over their citizenship, and also starting to negotiate their positioning.
An example is that in 1924, the United States government basically conferred citizenship onto the Native Americans, saying, “Whether you want it or not, you are now citizens.” Some Native Americans said, “That’s great. We’re happy to be citizens.” A number of Native Americans, like from the Haudenosaunee and Iroquois Confederacy, said, “No thank you. We’re citizens of our own nations, and we’re not interested in being assimilated.” I was interested in this back and forth, seeing a more complicated view of seeing that not all indigenous people think the same way, that there’s different forms of politics; but also, how do you understand a claim for sovereignty in the midst of a dominant United States settler colonial regime? I trace it [from] post-Civil War to the Citizenship Act, through the 1960s and then challenging the dominant notion of what sovereignty means, [which is] a large state with a military that has a clearly defined space. What indigenous people are challenging is that it neither means to be inside nor outside, but sort of on the boundaries and challenging the boundaries of settler colonial regimes and really emphasizing, as much as I can, the voices of these indigenous people making these arguments.
Can you explain what settler memory is?
Settler memory calls to the practices, functions and rules of memory for a collectivity. How a collectivity tells the story itself — from past, present to future — how people don’t just tell the story in active recollection, but how people live it. In my work I look at things like … the Washington Redsk*ns team-name controversy, the controversy in our discourse of using language around words like “Geronimo” or different names of indigenous people within telling the story of America. I call this the settler memory because it’s a way in which people who are settlers, who are not native, both acknowledge but see and do not see indigenous people at the same time. We can see a way in which indigenous people did exist in the more imaginary, and how they do not exist now.
It’s interesting to also engage in what is the relationship between settler colonialism and white supremacy. There’s a lot of discussion in the U.S. about white supremacy and racism. There’s very little discussion about settler colonialism and the status of indigenous people, so I want to talk about the relationship between them. Settler memory is how people who are of the settler identity as a nation both remember and forget indigenous people.
Have you specialized or focused your research in any particular indigenous groups in the U.S.? What have you learned from them and their attitudes toward settler colonialism today and over the course of history?
I haven’t really. Within the book, there are people from many different nations. I write about the really preeminent. One of the most preeminent political science and Native American authors is Vine Deloria Jr. I also write about the Iroquois Confederacy in terms of their resistance to citizenship. I write about the California tribes in terms of their resistance to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign in the 2000s, so I don’t focus on one. … I’m not an anthropologist or an ethnographer. I try to think about indigenous politics as both being diverse unto itself but also similarly dealing with settler colonialism. I like to have different examples of things, so the reader can see that you can’t say the Cherokee or Iroquois speak for everybody. Their politics are their own politics that speak for their particular nations, but similarly dealing with settler-colonial regimes that are dispossessing them of property and also undermining their self-governance.
How does settler memory play into American politics today?
My dream would be, because it’s a dream at this moment, to figure out a way in which I can get — especially in U.S. race studies, discourse, classes and other things — figuring out a way that people who are setting the topic can take indigeneity and settler colonialism seriously as active presences. And what settler memory is, is a way in which people see and do not see indigenous people.
I want to call out settler memory as a way in which indigenous absence is reproduced, and hopefully in calling that out engage people seriously with indigenous politics as an ever-present part of contemporary life. The fact of the matter is that Standing Rock has helped that in many ways because the Standing Rock conflict has pushed this into the public eye. What I want to be able to say is that indigenous politics has always been part of the American political realm, and if you want to understand American politics, you have to talk about settler colonialism, in the same way you have to talk about white supremacy and slavery. If you don’t talk about it, you don’t really understand American politics. It would be my hope, but what I need to provide people are different concepts and analytics and ways to intervene so they can enter the conversation.
How do you see the political relationship between indigenous people transforming in the coming years with the Trump administration’s actions and attitudes as of now?
I’m not indigenous, so I don’t speak for any indigenous people. I’m from a white settler background from western Canada, so I can’t speak for anybody else. My own assessment of things, and talking to people who are indigenous activists, is that things were bad under the Obama administration. … Trump is bad, but I have not seen among indigenous activists the notion that settler colonialism wasn’t around before that.
In an odd sort of way, though I certainly wish Trump weren’t in office, his actions have actually mobilized activists in many ways to do something, and Standing Rock has been one of the ways in which people who are looking for something to do have sort of connected to. Now that can be problematic if people start to speak for indigenous people — that’s why I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t — but I do think, and the people I talk to think, that while right now the Dakota Access pipeline is going through, that Standing Rock has forced the public to know that indigenous people are here, they’re making claims for territory, are politically engaged and are not going away. I’m not sure what this holds for the future, but I do think it’s mobilized amongst indigenous nations who work in alliance a sense of agency in some sense that people are in the public eye. For non-Native people, there’s more awareness. And maybe with Trump, to be more authoritarian means more people will be willing to stand with, not speak for but stand with, indigenous people. That would be my hope. In the same way, you see people who are concerned with the Trump administration standing up for immigrants and refugees in a way they weren’t before. Maybe in response to the administration, those who have not been activists might say, “I want to do something, so I’ll stand with people who are more vulnerable.”
What made you interested in indigenous peoples in the first place?
It goes to my background. I was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, and in Canada — while the situation for indigenous people is bad, settler colonialism and dispossession and all sorts of crappy stuff going on — the one thing is that indigenous political activism and indigeneity are public and present. … Growing up in British Columbia, I wasn’t an activist. I wasn’t politically engaged, but you just grow up and know about notions of treaties, blockades and indigenous politics. It’s an ever-present thing, and when I finally went to [college] … I studied environmental politics a little bit, which then starts to get into seeing indigenous dispossession and land claims.
When I went to grad school in New York, I was interested in indigenous politics. I wasn’t sure what to do with that, but then in grad school you have to figure out what you want to write about. Talking to advisors in U.S. politics, there’s almost no discussion of indigenous politics, so I kind of met my own political and personal interests and curiosity with something that needed to be talked about in political science. I had a wider project of a U.S.-Canadian American comparison, but that got too big, so I decided to do a project looking at understanding indigenous politics in a U.S. context, so it came out of my own background of feeling comfortable with the language. I’d have to say a lot of U.S. students know very little, and I had learned just enough in Canada to give me a sense of a background, and indigenous people weren’t invisible to me, so I knew something about the politics. But I still had a lot to learn. I realized there was a gap in political science to talk about it, and that’s sort of where things met, and I got into the dissertation.