On Critical Indigenous Studies and Early Modern Critical Race Studies: A Tri-Interview

Kim F. Hall; Scott Manning Stevens; and L. Lehua Yim

[Print edition page number: 217]

There has been a rich dialogue between Native Studies/Critical Indigenous Studies (NS/CIS) and Black/Critical Race Studies (B/CRS) in nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century scholarship. But there has been less interaction between those fields in premodern scholarship. The following conversation between Kim F. Hall, Scott Manning Stevens, and L. Lehua Yim tries to get at this problem: in the context of early modern studies, why is it so difficult for NS/CIS work and work that critically analyzes race and anti-Blackness to be in deeper conversation with each other? How does addressing fissures or gaps between our endeavors help us identify epistemological and political issues in early modern studies more broadly? What common political and ideological problems about nineteenth- and twentieth-century narratives defining “the early modern past” can Critical Race Studies and Critical Indigenous Studies interrogate further? This discussion took place on Zoom during Winter 2021 and has been edited by the participants for length and clarity.[1]

♦ ♦ ♦

LLY: In my experience, Native Studies continues to be pushed into nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century periodization while early modern studies has continually re-grounded itself in this idea that we can’t think about nineteenth-century thought-structures because it’s “a-historical.” And early modern studies’ productions of “the Native” or “the Indigenous” and non-European worldviews and histories prior to the nineteenth century remain caught up in uncritical tropes that replicate settler erasures of Native sovereignty, language archives, ontologies, and epistemologies. Similarly, in North American versions of Native or Indigenous Studies, if I want to talk about “premodern” property and law outside of Europe, I am limited to merely gesturing at Spanish conquest and then Locke with nothing else in between or around those two narrative nodes. And that’s singularly unhelpful for looking at the root of our current situation; it’s a kind of a-historicism that buttresses certain arguments of modern Native and colonizers’ socio-legal and political interactions. But it does nothing to talk about a “before,” which I associate with opening up possibilities to make space for past and future Native life that is outside the continual recirculation of “the Native” in settler discourse and knowledge production.

SMS: I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot and for a long time. And one of the challenges I always have when I’m trying to write something in the context of early modern studies is that each time, I have to reinvent the wheel as to what Indigenous Studies, Indigenous cultures, plural polities, and everything else were and are now. So, I end up with an essay about thirty pages too long from what’s wanted. And yet, I’ve had this experience that if I leave all that out, someone will say, “he’s talking about these things that we don’t know about.” It’s an endless frustration for the larger field of Indigenous Studies within the settler colonial scholarly world. The purposeful impoverishment of U.S. education on Indigenous issues hobbles us as scholars because we’re then left with no common ground on which to speak. Even my Native students have difficulty knowing the histories of tribes and nations other than their own. It’s this incredibly frustrating space to work in where we’ve been this blank in U.S. historical discourse, consigned to the past, written off-stage very early on. So, when you start to talk about things like the Doctrine of Discovery and these things that are vitally important to American Indigenous life today. . .

LLY: And to American life as a whole!

SMS: Right! And I always say, if you think some fifteenth-century papal bull has nothing to do with you living on the Mohawk reserve, you’re wrong. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court cited the Doctrine of Discovery in the land case between the Oneida and the city of Sherrill, New York. The idea that this fifteenth-century occurrence doesn’t live in the present is a misconception. Any expectation that we can somehow make up for an absence of education about the past, which yawns so temporally wide, creates a pressure to privilege modern periods’ fields of work. But Indigenous history does not begin at Wounded Knee. It is hard for me as a scholar to write about Native and Indigenous histories and issues while also being responsible to readers who are caught in this social and historical ignorance. It is hard to make sure they are on the same page when that page is two thousand pages long in its absence. And that is what really stymies me. If I were just writing about an early modern English love lyric, I would usually just stick to that standard discourse, those idioms. Because when I try to combine early modern studies and Indigenous Studies, I find it really challenging.

KFH: Scott, so much of what you said resonates with the trajectory of Premodern Critical Race Studies as experienced by Black Shakespeareans. At one point out of frustration after a conference, I told Ian Smith that we needed a manifesto to use every time we present early modern race work and somebody tries to drag us back to “please explain to me the history of race and critical race studies.” Fields can’t evolve if we’re constantly being made to pitch ourselves to the most ignorant. And that is really a demand for us to do[219] their thinking and work for them. I wouldn’t engage with other sub-fields and say, “hey, you know what, you can’t make your points until you explain to me the entire history of your sub-field.” But somehow, those of us who are People of Color, Black, and Indigenous, in particular, get hit with that demand. This ongoing refusal to allow us to use the scholarly tools that we trained in is kind of maddening: it creates writers-block in graduate students and faculty, and it is really stultifying.

SMS: We are forced to backtrack constantly. And I’ve had the same experience with editors: “You say ‘Haudenosaunee,’ but then sometimes you say ‘Iroquois.’” And I always explain why. But if I say “Six Nations,” or “Five Nations,” “Mohawk,” “Kanien’kehá:ka” ​—​ heads will explode! Mine doesn’t because I can hold these terms; we can all hold those terms. And you’re absolutely right. We do not go to a talk on the Soviet Union, raise our hand, and say, “Could you explain what Russia was? What do you mean by ‘tsar’? I don’t know what a ‘serf’ is.” And I see how we are responsible for making scholarly space for everyone else’s history, but no one is responsible for ours. And that drives me crazy.

LLY: I am very interested in interrogating what early modern studies thinks a “serf” is because people who claim that as their history are working amidst a discourse deeply conditioned by, made purposeful by the “presentist” needs of white settler colonial societies. Those comfortable versions of English social, political, and legal historical structures need reinvestigation. Akin to Montaigne’s appropriation of “Indian” observers of French economic disparities at the end of “Of Cannibals,” my interest in a NS/CIS approach to early modern studies appropriates a somewhat anthropological approach to undoing settled nineteenth- and twentieth-century “understandings” of early modern English life, looking again with concepts and analytical paradigms shaped outside of those canonized in modern European knowledge production. In doing so, I see this work as reclaiming an active power, a sovereign thought-process, to tell people that your ignorance isn’t just about my nation and others who live Indigenous ways. It is also about dominant narratives of early modern English society, which have been used to buttress domination and extraction as a mode of modern life. It’s a continual frustration to find an unexamined desire, even amongst allies, to erase ‘Ōiwi sovereignty and political existences operating outside the paradigm and discourses of the settler state. This is burdensome, because such an erasure speaks in the name of freedom of the individual subject from oppression, while remaining ignorant of its predication upon wiping out all of the socio-political-constructing ways that Native Peoples everywhere live in relation to each other and the places they belong to. For me, that is the biggest reason why we need to have this conversation now.

SMS: I hear you. Pointing out the presumption that the early modern European past is all knowable and known to them ​—​ because it’s not. In fact, what I often have to remind students is the plurality of points of view and traditions within Europe at the time. Because they take weird comfort in the idea that that’s just the way people thought back then. Slavery, witch-burning, and other horrifying things get consigned to “that’s just how they were ‘back then’” ​—​ but there were dissenting voices back then that express the horror. Why would Montaigne write an essay like “Of Coaches” and think about the destruction leveled on the Indigenous world for the trade in pearls and pepper? Students have a hard time thinking about these issues because of this historical “pass,” which makes these histories appear not worth critiquing. Then you can’t even bring Critical Race Studies to that juncture because of this thought that there is nothing in those historical periods to be critical about, and if we do raise a critique, we are being “a-historical.” The wrong of slavery remains protected in this kind of “that’s just how it was back then” belief.

LLY: I think about those in our Native and Black communities who have fought to learn more about our traditional knowledges, in our languages, and assert the legitimacy of agriculture, water management, familial[220] belonging, and political and social practices pushing against colonial repression. There is common ground between these knowledges in diverse Native communities and diverse Black communities. But our current losses in the pandemic threaten the keeping of those knowledges. We need more spaces in which to be able to say things like “we’re not going to let the equivalent of a library burn down when we lose this person in our community.”

KFH: Absolutely.

SMS: Yes. And we need other people, so-called “allies” to understand the weight of those losses, that to speak of an individual person as bearing so much importance to a People is not just quaint or folkloric or ethnic ​—​ but we are in fact talking about means of knowledge keeping, knowledge production. And the answer isn’t just to say, “Well, write everything down or just adopt foreign ways.” I’ve had students say, “Well, you write, you can’t think writing is bad.” And I reply that I don’t think writing is bad, but I think writing is a different kind of knowing than knowing in the way my ancestors or even my elders do. And I always give them the example of my grandmother. When I was a teenager, I got some junior anthropologist notion in my head that I was going to record my grandmother’s stories with a tape recorder. And she politely said no ​—​ and not for any spooky “you’re going to steal my soul” reason. And when I asked why not, she said, because then you won’t really have to know them. You’ll have them on a tape, which you can put on a shelf and think you always have access. But they won’t be a part of you. If you can’t recall them to your own children from your own mind, you don’t live them, they are not living in you, and they are not part of you. And if you say, “oh let me find that tape ​—​ I know it’s around here somewhere,” that is not knowing them. That had a huge impact on me. Because I realized how much we don’t get told when it’s to be written down. And all the knowledge that is out there that the anthropologist “missed,” as it were, knowledge that “was held back” ​—​ whatever we call it ​—​ I find my grandmother’s stance a really valuable lesson, especially when I think about the value of orality and what histories are for. We have libraries and libraries filled with historic writing and yet phenomenal levels of historical ignorance among the general population. So when someone extols the presumed superiority of European technologies, how has that person been the beneficiary of those technologies given their remarkable historical ignorance? That person is really operating on a kind of folkloric level of this is what happened. How do you know European technologies were superior? Was it due to their own research? No, it’s just kind of what that person learned growing up with a disengaged kind of “so it was” history. I noticed recently that in 2019, a group calling themselves the Patriot Front distributed on some college campuses maps of the United States that were just one solid color, with the caption: “Not Stolen. Conquered.” This strikes me as a self-explanatory justification. We have so much work to do in the face of that continued declaration. This version of our history is simply a “might makes right,” self-legitimizing claim.

KFH: I think what’s come out so far shows exactly why we need to have more of this Premodern Critical Race Studies (PCRS) and NS/CIS conversation, and why the Newberry Library needs to host it. Because one of the things we’re talking about is how Critical Indigenous Studies and Black Studies have been so busy trying to do our work within the protocols of what’s considered scholarship that we are hampered by strategies of deflection that have kept us from having rich conversations with each other. Instead, we can take our fields in different, powerful directions. For example, Scott, your thinking about how we listen, what oral histories and traditions mean, pushes back against the notion of “archive” that is built into the Newberry, the Folger, and other institutions. To gain access as a Fellow, you need to identify print documents in this collection that you can speak about. Instead, these institutions need to become spaces for people to share knowledge and make new knowledge that directs us in how to read things differently. And since this volume is about visual representation, this includes thinking more about the visual as a mode of[221] knowledge and knowledge production, rather than it being merely about the decorative. If I am going to put an image in my book, I need to explain that image’s interpretive value.

LLY: Your point about the visual, which could be shared between Native communities and Black communities, is that there is an ethics in vision-dominating representations, especially the visual presentations of violence and Native and Black bodies that is also part of the institutional kuleana (responsibility) that is not kept by institutions. I’ve become focused on pushing back against desires to appropriate the Black body and the Native body by scholars in early modern studies work. I think our fields’ coming together might engage with the white settler colonial desire to continue to extract cultural-capital value from presentations or mere invocations of “the Black body” or “the Native body.” How might our fields come together to address that ethical issue and the power differentials in these extractive visualizations? And why should we take this specific issue up?

SMS: If I think of the way you were both just talking about visual material, which I agree with, as a continuing metaphor, there is a sense in which we are always put in the visual and oral ​—​ i.e., the non-alphabetical ​—​ documentation of that past. And it’s what I call the category of “mere illustration,” which is kind of like decorative but also seems to have the authority of “documenting” the past. There are two things that white historians often do with images of any racial import in the past that drive me crazy: they treat the visual representations as authoritative ​—​ for example, “we can see from this that. . .” ​—​ and I’m pointing out that this image is from a European engraver who has never been to the Americas, drawing the fanciful Indigenous people with Greek athletic bodies doing whatever they’re illustrated as doing in an imagined context. There’s very little to be learned about that Native culture from that visual representation, but there’s a lot to be learned about how Europeans think about that Native culture. That’s where I find myself looking at the writing, including what I call the tyranny of the document in the discipline of history. There is an over-sized truth value placed by historians in written sources. But is it not possible to write a lie? How about a misperception or misunderstanding? There is something to be gleaned from the Jesuit Relations of North America, but you must read extremely critically and engage the text with a very large sense of knowing they exaggerate their understanding of our languages. My own experience in learning other languages makes me suspicious of any claims to learn Mohawk ​—​ without any orthography or known grammars ​—​ in three months of hanging out. This emphasis on particular kinds of sources goes to the prejudice in history and our disciplines that historians are doing “something real,” and we in literary studies are just studying fairy stories or something. But we are doing something deeply historical and real, and yet that smugness about dealing with historical truth and reality and not “stories” persists, even though the source documents they deal in are forms of stories. That disciplinary divide often explains the sorry state of Indigenous representation amongst the ranks of historians. The discipline pushes us away.

LLY: This makes me think of another challenge. History is not the only discipline that pushes us away. Anthropology has also arisen amidst relationships to white supremacy and imperialism. And anthropology, like history, insists on being the site of real knowledge about Natives. Further, scholars working in early modern studies who want to re-engage cultural histories through BS/CRS and NS/CIS are faced with this impression that a touch of the real was enough to tell us all we could need to know about Native and Black lives and imperial and settler colonial cultural formations and encounters in our period.

KFH: I have this sense that the moment of the 1990s let contemporary early modern studies have a kind of complacency, like, “Oh yes. We’ve done ‘the Other.’ We’ve done colonialism.”And now we can move on to whatever the next white thing is. This complacency was one of those kinds of clubs used to beat us into submission ​—​ “see, so-and-so already said this”[222] ​—​ which attempts to redirect our energies. This gets us back to what Scott started us off with: the forced recursiveness of our early modern work.

SMS: My take on early modern studies’ prior turn towards anthropology, especially when it came to Indigenous peoples or non-European peoples was: that’s what we get instead of history.

LLY: Yes!

SMS: Because it’s this whole impression of “no written records, therefore no sources” for Native histories. And the only apparent means of knowing us, absent the records, is through ethnographic records by pre-modern proto-anthropologists.

LLY: As a graduate student in early modern studies, I still felt it incumbent upon me to learn about anthropology, even though I could never see myself joining that discipline, because my entire life was shaped by it. As you say, instead of history, Native people get cultural anthropology.

SMS: Yes, “tell me all about me.”

LLY: I worry about our early modern colleagues taking anthropological claims as knowledge without a familiarity with the ethical self-searching some cultural anthropologists have undertaken. I worry about circulating clichés and stereotypes in place of research based on written and oral sources from the periods we work in.

KFH: And part of the struggle of this work is how we talk back to these fields and the history of our own field. My mother and I were listening to a Zoom panel on escape routes for enslaved Blacks. And Cheryl LaRoche said she actually did go and look at the major books on American slavery, and few “credible historians” used the term “underground railroad” before 1998.I was like, “Wait, what??” And learning that licensed her to stop thinking about land as much and to start thinking about water ​—​ especially in the eastern U.S., where Black people were using water as a means of escape more than land. So she said that we don’t actually have to keep using the term “underground railroad,” but that on the other hand, it is the term we’re using; so we don’t want to get rid of it. Her observation reminds us that you can use that term to track how Black scholars and Black people do push back against a field. So as you are talking, I am thinking about how both of our early modern fields are also pushing back, using our tools in literature and theory to push back against modes of truth or claims to truth that anthropology and history as disciplines tend to make in their worst incarnations.

SMS: I was thinking as we were talking about anthropology, partly because of my generation ​—​ especially reading Vine Deloria ​—​ that I remember when anthropology was facing its ethical issues in relation to Native peoples. It strikes me that we need the engagement of anthropologists and historians who are deeply invested in the stakes of more ethical versions of those disciplines. Anthropology still has value, still has a lot to teach us that is not getting covered by historical study per se. We need more Indigenous and Black anthropologists; and we need to push back against the idea that you can’t write about your own people. Are only white people objective?

LLY: There is a responsibility to push back in early modern studies to help folks find a little wiggle room within the crushing power of so many systems of containment encoding Native and Black peoples in white settler colonial structures of knowledge. The personal is not just political in this work. It also means cultural survival is at stake. So how can we support each other practically and intellectually in this work?

KFH: Yes, and how do we find and support those young people who took a history class thinking, “oh I’m interested in history,” and then all of their interests and family traditions get squashed? How do we reach those young people and find a path for them that is not as soul-crushing as the paths that we trod?[223]

SMS: I guess within the academy, I think that it remains vital to support other scholars doing the type of work we’re trying to do. And by “support,” I mean cite them, invite them, support their tenure, their place of authority within the academy. If we want to reach the students who have made the choice to be within the academy, we have to be there for them. We have to demand a certain level of visibility for them and push back where an administration needs to be moved.

KFH: For me, it’s not just about finding students to be academics ​—​ although I really want to find students to be academics! But it’s also that the knowledge, the tools we offer will be useful to these students, no matter what they do. Administrations primarily invested in STEM would like us in the humanities to forget this, that we actually do offer good tools. And I think this is part of why I am excited about the RaceB4Race goals: if there are ways that we can have public discussion and help students find us, whether they go into academia or not, they have the potential to start catalyzing discussions in a lot of different venues and to push back against this current call for teaching a history of white comfort, amidst claims that any other kind of history can’t be taught. There are battles that we can come together around, and not in some romanticized version of “Black people and Native peoples have a natural affinity” or that kind of thing ​—​ but that there is real struggle here that we need to get on board with. One thing that libraries and institutions with resources could do is make space for learning that is not just about producing a thing ​—​ that we could come together and learn about each other’s traditions and modes of interpretation and being and survival that aren’t in those archives in a transparent kind of way. I’m worried about the conversation because at the same time that Black scholars are chastising our allies, saying, you need to know more about Critical Race Theory, you need to know more about the history of Black studies ​—​ I don’t want us to come to Native and Critical Indigenous Studies with that same kind of appropriative ignorance. I don’t want people out there just using the term “settler colonialism” and not understanding that it has a history. The other thing that I want to learn is how we can think about slowness and nurturing as part of a practice of allyship between Black Studies and Native Studies.

SMS: Right. It’s kind of like the cognate to that notion of really knowing an oral story, that it becomes a part of you. But that takes a long time; that is a slow process. And it takes a lot of repeating. It takes a lot of reflection, answering questions about the story, etc. And it’s a different way of knowing, a more holistic one that we need something cognate to in our exchanges as scholars of Critical Race theory and Indigenous Studies. Because we can’t know everything. Each other’s fields are capacious enough that it would be a lifetime of learning to know what you know about Black Studies. And so, I think that if we can respect and acknowledge our own ignorance and limitations within our field, and know who to go to, then that would be a great step forward.

LLY: And I think also to help new generations of scholars avoid practices of extraction, which requires them to know who they can send their work to for informed feedback on content and the issues of extractive scholarship. I worry about the job pressures to produce extractive scholarship. A strong place can be held where being ethically responsible and doing good work is possible. But in this highly extractive moment, where demands on Black, Indigenous, and Of Color scholars are very high, this lands really hard on scholars in untenured and precarious, under-resourced positions. And I don’t want early career scholars to feel like they have to choose between their career advancement, which may require an appropriative and extractive set of practices, and on the other hand, being ethical and responsible to us as Peoples and communities of knowledge.

KFH: This moment of possibility for both of our fields is also a highly extractive moment. All of us are getting invitations to be part of volumes, to do X, to do Y, and a number of volumes are coming out where a race studies scholar was asked to join in after the volume was[224] in process, the SAA seminar had already happened, etc. So again, this is about that time issue. The white scholars had three years to prepare for participating in a volume, to pick their topic and do their research; but then the race scholar is asked, “Hey, can you in two months give us an essay for this?” And sometimes you can. But that’s wrong.

SMS: That’s exactly an issue. I have lost count of how many things I’ve been asked to contribute to after the fact. I ask, wait, this is due when? And the reply is, “well, we’ve been planning it,” but then someone woke up and said we need something by a Native person. Oh really? And then you’re caught in a bind, because you ask yourself, do I want no representation in that collection that yet again leaves out Indigenous Studies? Or do I want to risk writing a half-baked piece just as a placeholder of Indigeneity in the collection? It’s a real bind because you’re asked late, and you don’t have the time to do what you would like to do, and yet you risk there not being anything in there. And this has been going on like crazy for the last two or three years. Similarly, it’s just like being asked by an organization that I’m vaguely connected to, “Can you help us with our land acknowledgment?” As someone said on social media, that’s like receiving this message: I have your iPhone. I acknowledge I have your iPhone. Can you help? PS: I am not giving it back. [laughter]

KFH: Oh my gosh! The endless capacity of whiteness to redeem itself and make itself innocent anew forestalls things that people could do. So, for example, if we get an invitation, say instead, hey, maybe you and your contributors should all go and read these three essays and include a final essay about how you didn’t do that work and what you learned from reading those three essays. But then they’ll think, oh, I did my work, and let’s go on to the next day. That might be a better option than making us do something quick and half-baked. How about showing your ignorance and your learning, at some point, rather than making our one essay the placeholder for a lot of invisibilizing of work that’s been here for years.

LLY: Here’s a complication: a lack of sustained, lived engagement with Indigenous Peoples and individuals becomes an excuse for ignorance, for not knowing in fact who are reliable and important thinkers within NS/CIS, let alone who might be linguistically and historically expert or even “knowledge keepers” amidst a person’s Native nation or community. This allows for an endless deflection of learning into an excused ignorance. And there is also a shame and fear of valid critique that this ignorance protects. I also worry about how Indigenous lifeways continue to be funneled into and seen erroneously as merely a subset of “race” ​—​ which is not to say that “race” is not a structure that Native people are subject to. Rather, as many CIS scholars have noted in their work, “race” also functions as an assimilative tool to eliminate Native nations’ political existence and their sovereignty over territory also claimed by the settler state. Similarly, as others writing CIS and feminist critiques have noted, the binary of “Nature vs. Culture” is also a technique of settler colonialism. My concern arises in observing the ease with which work invoking “nature” or “the environment” escapes critique as a tool of white settler colonialism because its ontological categorization and ordering of things is not perceptible as an attack on Indigenous nations and Peoples’ sovereignty and self-determination. It looks innocent, speaking of ecologies, of loving the beauty of the natural world, taking better care of the environment. But these ways of thinking and talking about our homelands are used to oppress and eliminate Native Peoples’ definitions of and relationships with our places, our lives, and ways. This erasure requires sustained disruption and critique.

SMS: To underline the epistemic difference between our ways of knowledge production, of what is knowing, and what is being is so profound at times that I have to explain to students that this is where Indigenous language scholarship is incredibly useful. It is hard to translate certain concepts typical of Western culture into many Indigenous languages. And then you have to ask why that is the case? For example, the term “wilderness” comes to mind. What would[225] “wilderness” be in Mohawk? What is that space in nature, hostile to humans, where we don’t go? We Mohawks understand the woods. We understand the rural places where there are no villages of our people. But there’s no “wilderness” ​—​ there’s certainly no wilderness to be conquered or defeated. There is no errand into that “wilderness.” There is no concept like it in Mohawk. And we certainly don’t want it. Because that claim on maps of the United States is part of a programmatic way of treating the land, and sovereignty over it, and everything else as a form of Western property dominion. I tell my students, if there is any part of the Christian Bible that you learn, learn Genesis 1:28 about Man having dominion over the world and all of its creatures. That is the least Indigenous way I could think of to be in relationship with “nature.” Having been raised Christian, I’m sorry that’s part of it. That notion is deadly. It is behind all the crazy “wise use,” exploitative, “it’s mine to do with as I want” type of thinking. It undergirds greed as an institutional good; it is poison. There is much of the Bible I would excise, but that is the first thing, because it is treated constantly as a justification in our society. The rift between that order to dominate and all of the different ways to be in relation to natural entities in Native societies drives me crazy. I have had similar issues with “ecocriticism” for these reasons, especially if it does not address the Native critiques of Christian dominion. I was talking with Mohawk-speaking friend of mine, and I said, alright, we can distinguish how “wild” has its own Germanic etymology, and “wilde tier” is usually about wild animals. And we distinguish between wild dogs and domesticated dogs. And he says, yeah, but the word for “wild” in Mohawk is the exact word for “free.” So if we had to think of a space territorially that is “wild,” as you’re saying, he said, it would literally break down ​—​ because the default pronoun is always “she” in Mohawk, because we’re matrilineal ​—​ it would be “The-Place-Where-She-Is-Free.” And that just does not sound so scary.

LLY: So is this actually the beginning of a possible subfield for early modern Critical Race Studies and Critical Indigenous Studies, since we’re bringing these efforts together, which might look something like histories of white fear in our period? Similarly, there is room for a sub-field of white settler colonial pleasure studies in early modern studies. This would be interesting to me because my people, Native Hawaiians, get appropriated and defined by the long histories and structures of white settler pleasure.

KFH: Yes! Thinking about white supremacy, remembering past experiences in my career, I remember having conversations when I was presenting work from Things of Darkness, where people would ask, do you really mean “white supremacy”? Do you really want to say “white supremacy” ​—​ like for years, I would get this. And it was bell hooks’ work that gave me the strength to say, no, it is white supremacy, and I am going to use this because I have to. Otherwise, it is just contributing to kinds of erasure. And it’s disheartening to have been saying this for thirty years, and people are still asking, “Is it white supremacy?”

LLY: This makes me think that what we early modern scholars perhaps need is to define for ourselves ​—​ again, following your work Kim ​—​ what white supremacy as a term looks like inclusive of the elimination of sovereignty amongst peoples deemed uncivilized?

SMS: I think about the first decades of European conquest in the Americas ​—​ those invasions were sanctified by European Christianity, which is able to graft itself onto a sense of “civilization” that is absolute. The papal bulls that make up the Doctrine of Discovery do not explicitly raise color. They are all about Christian doctrine and the supremacy of the civilized. Every horror of the Conquest that is visited on Indigenous Peoples is done in the name of the Church. As racializing discourses develop, this becomes more evident: the Sublimis Deus from 1537 announces that Indigenous Americans are fully human. Great. Thank you, Pope. Except a subsequent pope goes on to say “. . .unless they are resistant,” which means that then, Europeans can enslave them. These things don’t stand like precedent in law; a new pope can change the policy. There[226] is this idea that “white supremacy” means Alabama in 1915 and that I am incorrect in applying it to the Conquest. Yet, in the early moments in the Americas, it’s a white supremacy that has yet to fully articulate that whiteness even as it asserts cultural and social superiority over non-European peoples.

KFH: It’s locating truth and humanity in a very specific type of body and society.

LLY: At the same time, the moral and epistemological construct of “fairness” operates here as well.

KFH: A defense attorney for the killers of Ahmaud Arbery makes a statement like, “there is no evidence of a soul so blackened as to warrant a life sentence.” How many hundreds of years have gone by and are we still doing that?

SMS: Right.

KFH: So I do feel that even if it’s not articulated firmly, there is this sense of a moral transcendence that’s inherent to Christianity that becomes articulated as whiteness as Europeans seek territory, particularly in the Caribbean. I also wanted to say something about the “expansion” of race studies in the direction of Indigenous Studies. It feels to me that what I want, instead of “an expansion into” Critical Indigenous Studies, is for Critical Race Studies to be always changing, adapting, and surviving in part by continuing to learn. I want us to refine our tools, refine our questions, and to teach and learn for transformation and justice. If we look at it as just an expansion of a field, at the possible expense of another field ​—​ and it is telling of academic discourse that we don’t have better terms for this encounter between race studies and Indigenous Studies ​—​ this should be more than allyship. There should be a robust coalescence of these fields at a certain point for how we think about what we do and how we think about the early modern period.

SMS: Yes, I agree ​—​ when I hear the word “expansion,” I get nervous. [laughter] And it’s not a mere issue of semantics. But it may be better to say that Critical Race Studies would not “expand” but instead “recognize” this discourse that has been going on between Indigenous Peoples for a very long time. Whether it’s going back to Vine Deloria or William Apess, or someone recorded even before that, what should be recognized is that there is an intellectual, resistant tradition among Indigenous Peoples that has its own history; it is its own discourse. And it has been sidelined or marginalized in this other conversation. But if we were to recognize it and call on what it has brought to the table, what it is bringing to the table, that would be a way I would be more content with than calling it the next thing that we’re going to start now. It’s already been happening, for a long time; it just has not been included in the larger Western conversation.

LLY: These are the presets of knowledge production. When I think about what is possible for us, I think in archipelagic terms as a kanaka: that we are multiple, and in our episteme, no one gets to claim absolute knowledge of everything. “Not all knowledge is kept in one school.” This isn’t just a pose; this is respect for limits, a pragmatic stance. My experience working across different Native nations and communities is that when we get together, we’re often very conscious of where we gather. Whose house or territory are we in? Who sets the rules? Who is the guest? And then there is a play of languages that becomes a kind of comparative relating. These experiences are paradigmatic for me in how we in our fields might engage with each other. But putting our work in early modern studies in this state requires a rethinking of all the premises that go into knowledge production as summarizing, as analyzing and making claims to know more than what one can or should claim to know. Similarly, many questions posed by allies to particular Native nations and communities are unconsciously set in an appropriative framework. The capacity of white settler culture to imagine that it’s going to save us and our planet, the repeated refusal to de-center, articulate itself in the most innocent approaches. There are so many issues, including language revitalization and #landback.[227]

SMS: And you’ll have a huge portion of people, whether they’re hostile to what you say or sympathetic, say to you that it’s never gonna happen. “Dream on if you think all these white people are going to step aside and give the country back to Native Americans; it’s simply not going to happen.” And I would probably agree that it’s not going to happen. And so, then, the question is well what do we have to offer beyond the most radical choice, which would be the quickest way to a solution? Either they’re not involved or they are ​—​ but how? Not everything must be in terms of appropriation. These things have to be teachable to them. Certainly their ways were perniciously teachable to other humans on the planet, through power.

KFH: I want to talk about that “you’re never going to get the land back.” The kind of unspoken corollaries are: “so you might as well not imagine having your sovereignty, and you might as well not even talk about it.” And I say this as someone deeply implicated in this dynamic of talking about a lot of random stuff that won’t ever happen. But we can imagine trees, humans, and aliens coming together in space, and we can spend a lot of time talking about that. So white imagination of alternatives is allowed to be capacious and extractive and colonizing of territory, but other forms of imagination ​—​ even if you don’t talk about it as specific political acts and formations, even if you just think about it as an intellectual and imaginative space ​—​ then you somehow are not allowed to have that. Because white people have already decided that that map of conquest is supposed to prevent us from thinking about any other types of histories or response to histories or futures or even the past in a real way.

LLY: The usefulness of North American Indian tribal assertions of #landback, especially First Nations’ assertions, as an outsider to that, I can see that phrase’s rallying power as settlers treat those nations and communities as foolish or audacious for making that assertion. In my own community, we’re in the midst of a climate shift that will cause the oceans to rise, risking the places and lifeways of Pacific Island nations and Native Pacific peoples. With all of that potential loss, #landback only begins to address the urgency of the need to assert our lifeways, which support and enable sustainable life on islands in the middle of the ocean. What will happen when ‘Ōiwi are taken from our homeland in these ways?

SMS: That’s often what I’ve wondered as a Haudenosaunee person about those Native nations who were completely removed from their homelands. So like the Trail of Tears and the “Five Civilized Tribes” of the south ​—​ I can’t imagine what it is to grow up knowing that my traditional homeland is a thousand miles away. And I can’t go and visit my people there. It’s a big country, and we move around on it, but I know that more people are back in Mohawk land, even though that number is greatly reduced. But I have those feelings about place. I wonder what we can teach non-Indigenous people that will help ameliorate the situation and make them see that Indigenous sovereignty expanded does not mean Indigenous hegemony over them. This tension between a fear of Indigenous hegemony and our aspirations towards the righting of the vessel that’s listing ​—​ we can say that you need us to steer again. It is our land. It’s our place. And we know how to be well in it and with it. There are better ways to live than this. Indigenous Studies can help. You know, I keep going back to the term “recognition” ​—​ a recognition of the other for whatever that person’s cultural values are, despite any unknownness. This recognition happens all the time between Indigenous nations. There are all sorts of things we need to know about each other’s communities and all sorts of wisdoms that we need to share. And I don’t think that those are acts of appropriation. Exchange and giving is a big part of our Indigenous cultures. I think we have to acknowledge where that kind of real generosity of spirit lies.

KFH: Maybe this helps me name another part of this, which is what real academic community looks like, and why academia seems to hate it so much. One of the things I hear about RaceB4Race and some of our events is, oh, you guys are just sitting around affirming each other; it’s not rigorous. And there’s no recognition that[228] sometimes in community, we’re letting people present their work and talk about things, and then we have vigorous debates about those things. And we do it in front of them, like we do in other spaces. But we try to do it with an idea that we are a community. There’s something about the academic world that doesn’t want to see this, doesn’t want to see this community building as part of what we can do. That’s another thing that Black Studies and Indigenous Studies try to give to ourselves and each other and the academy. Community is a real thing, and it’s rigorous, powerful, political, and always changing. And it’s necessary because it’s the only way some of us can actually survive in early modern studies. If I hadn’t had other people of color trying to do this work and say, yes, you’re not crazy, that was some off-the-wall stuff that was happening ​—​ you know, who would get through?

LLY: At RaceB4Race, I can always sense the relief that participants feel that comes with being able to say something that is hard enough to say because of racism in the academy and settler colonialism. And participants don’t have to apologize for their work or shield their brilliance.

SMS: The white gaze and white mind has been committed for decades to saying that we didn’t have anything of value. And now that we’re coming together and saying we actually do value this, and we call it for what it is, they see it as a lack on their part. And so now you have something I don’t have, and we want it!

LLY: I am so grateful that you have been willing to share the wealth of your insights. Thank you both for this conversation. You make me think about what it means to be a kumu, a teacher and a source. One of my hopes for our continuing work together is to give people an experience of what a different way of teaching and learning looks like. So I hope that we can continue these conversations and these learning experiences together. I’ve learned a lot. Thank you!

SMS: Well, this has been a real delight, so thank you so much!

KFH: Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.

  1. [218] The co-editors are particularly grateful to L. Lehua Yim for most generously facilitating this tri-interview. 


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Seeing Race Before Race Copyright © 2023 by Kim F. Hall; Scott Manning Stevens; and L. Lehua Yim is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


Share This Book