Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States

Simpson explores the politics of refusal as the political alternative to recognition, the much sought after presumed good of multicultural politics (p. 11). Though defined as a “cartography of refusal” (p.  33), Simpson nevertheless concurs with Charles Taylor that “recognition is a vital human need” (p. 21). What constitutes this vital recognition is itself contested, as the politics of recognition could equally be the language of the politics of membership within Mohawk communities. Simpson however, maintains a distinction between these modes of refusal (against the State or other Mohawk community members), though much of the analysis focuses on the deeply co-constitutive relationship between ‘membership’ (within the community) and ‘recognition’ by the State.

‘Recognition’ as a gift of the State is tested through Mohawk movement across the Canadian and US state borders. These modern citizenships are refused by Mohawk activists, along with a refusal to vote, to pay taxes, to stop politically being Iroquois. This politics of refusal also encompasses a refusal to simply “disappear” after centuries of settler colonialism.  The first two chapters trace how Mohawk interlocutors assert this unvanquished sovereignty as events of ‘refusal’ when they insist on a Haudenosaunee passport, rather than a  Canadian one and bearing the consequences of these and other similar decisions. Many acts are in response to the familiar patterns of land seizures by the State, with none of the expected international support; elements of the ‘broken promises’ that Niezen describes as a defining aspect of Indigenous identity.

Simpson early asks; “what does it mean to be unrecognised? What does it mean to not know what this means?” (p. 23) As this second question is only touched on late in the book, readers never learn what proportion of Kahnawa’:ke Mohawk practise this sophisticated and committed politics of refusal.  Readers are provided with minimal context: “Kahnawa’:ke is like the fringe on a boot of the confederacy…imperfect in ethnological terms, but definitely traditional; peace loving, but definitely ready to use force (consistently in defence of rights and territory)…” (p. 31).

In chapter 2, Simpson focuses upon recognition within the Kahnawa’:kwon via the complexities of membership, where the invasive regulations of the Canadian state under the 1876 Indian Act and traditional governance have intersected.  Such imbrications include the patrilineal bias of the Indian Act that transferred the traditional matrilineal descent and property holding to the father’s line and thus disenfranchised Iroquois women. While overturned by Bill C-31, this enfranchisement of Indian women was another threat to the community and (partly) catalysed a regulatory 50% blood quantum for membership status. Such a community driven bio-politic is a lack of recognition, a refusal of membership. Simpson articulates this as reactive to an ongoing encroachment against limited resources and a collective refusal to be engulfed by the settler state. Yet, she asks; “how could our women be willingly disenfranchised by this community when they were clan holders?” (p. 114).

Chapter 3, “Constructing Kahnawa’:ke” recalls the “canon” (p. 85) of Iroqouis ethnography as a colonial logic of imagined and/or immanent disappearance shared by the early ethnographers. Simpson is critical of these early ethnographies as “authenticating discourses” (p. 70)  However, any expert text  [in this case ethnographic] risks this label.  Critique of her anthropological forbears (such as Parker and Morgan) could apply to any early anthropologist in any settler colonial context, they are easy targets. Simpson raises the issue that the Iroquois were self-consciously performing particular forms of knowledge for these anthropologists (p. 72). Yet, she does not allow for the ways this agency may be a form of complicity in their own representation, rather referring to it as “textual atrophy” (p. 73). A critical engagement with this tension of Indigenous [self]-authorship and anthropological interpretation is absent. It is a statement of fact that these early ethnographic writings were reflective of the historical period within which they were enmeshed.

What is a more useful line of enquiry is what Mohawk make of these writings today. How have they been variously rejected or re-imagined in claims against the State for land or in claims against each other for recognition? Simpson defines these texts spanning 150 years as “creating a regulatory body of knowledge “(p. 93). Yet it seems to me that Simpson herself is the one regaling against this from within the academy.  Readers are not provided evidence as to how (other) Kahnawa’:ke Mohawk have been regulated by such texts, or how these texts matter to them.

While the author is herself Kahnawa’:ke Mohawk, as glimpsed in the acknowledgements, she doesn’t critically reflect on her role as Indigenous subject and community member. Yet, Simpson sets herself up as writing from a position of insider privilege and thus unique authority. The reader has to infer this status; the author as a “Simpson” is only introduced half way through the book, while the complex ethics she negotiated is briefly mentioned in the appendix.

In chapter 5, Simpson asks: why is there such incommensurability between Iroquois perceptions of the Jay Treaty and those of the regimes that now interpret it? (p. 131) As she explores these disjunctions Simpson recounts some of her more notable border crossing experiences and others, including that of a Mohawk journalist friend.  Yet, where are the ironworkers mentioned in the introduction who cross daily or weekly? How do they manage their politics with the precarious whims of the border guards? How familiar are they with the 1794 Jay Treaty invoked in the examples provided?  Readers are left with the impression that each border crossing for the ‘average’ Mohawk is an overt political act. Or is the point that each border crossing has the potential to become one? Readers don’t get a sense that these “countless others” (p. 144) are represented in the several examples provided. It is not until the final chapter that one interviewee states that for “simplicities sake…I will say I’m a Canadian citizen, I live in Canada…but that is not how I feel. I am a Mohawk of Kahnawa’:ke… Canadian citizenship is a sort of anciliary citizenship which I invoke to avoid hassle.” (p. 172).

In the penultimate chapter readers are given a brief glimpse of the role of women in the Oka [land] crisis of 1990 in what appears to have been a fleeting return to classical matriarchal power.  This is a contrast to the contemporary domination of men in longhouse politics and in the Indian Act discussed in chapters 2 and 4. Simpson points out that when Iroquois women are subordinated for the “utilitarian good” (p. 160) of the local Indigenous collective, this is the historical consequence of the interplay between colonial patriarchy and the defensive exclusivity of Mohawk identity. It is clear that Simpson personally struggles with how to reconcile that women carry the burden of this disempowering shift.

For this antipodean reader, the presumptions of prior knowledge throughout the book was frustrating at times. For instance, readers are told that Longhouse or traditional people refuse to participate in any level of government that is not Iroquois (p. 54), but this category of ‘Longhouse’ is not defined; readers are introduced to the Deerfield captives, the descendants of whom have been assimilated into Mohawk culture and society, and the “revolutionary war” with no detail about what these are (p. 47); when readers are first introduced to the idea of wampum the explanatory endnote is not provided until several chapters later. A map would have been very useful in articulating, even approximately, the borders and overlaps of States’ and Indigenous territories, particularly when there are other peoples mentioned with minimal reference to their relationship with the Mohawk. Stylistically the text is a mix of informal colloquialisms; “invocation of white men and ‘bullshit’, a pairing of terms with a deep provenance” (P. 143) and at times dense analysis that overwhelms the ethnographic evidence.

Australians, with a much shallower history of colonisation [about half the period of US/Canadian colonialism], can learn from the deep history outlined in this book; the Mohawk refusal to disappear and to accept membership under an illegitimate sovereign is a powerful politics of identity. Yet, the flip side, as Simpson states, is a virulent and at times violent one, where one’s own people might refuse the recognition that is membership, compelled by the encroachment upon territory, resources and cultural flows, an ongoing colonialism.

As a form of “literary sovereignty” (p. 105), ultimately Simpson attempts to balance an empirical ethnography and a political treatise as an activist anthropologist seeking to reinstate and reinvigorate Mohawk sovereignty on their own terms. As Simpson is authoring an alternative sovereignty, she is also authoring an alternative activist anthropology, one tied to her own emergent subjectivity.

Sarah Holcombe, Australian National University

Simpson, Audra Simpson. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States.  Duke University Press, 2014. Read more at Duke University Press.


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