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Against the death maps of Empire: Contesting colonial borders through Indigenous sovereignty

October 14, 2015

This editor’s reflection is in response to a series of essays that was written on this site, examining the intersections between immigration and decolonization. The full series can be found here. There are further resources on this topic at the end of this reflection.


by Eric Ritskes

“We live within fabricated borders, within countries that were named by Europeans. Nigeria doesn’t mean anything in my language. I’m Yoruban… Our borders are all wrong.” (Seun Kuti, 2013)

Nelson Maldonado-Torres (2004) writes that “borders appear in our world as the death maps of empire” (p. 48). As toddlers wash up on beaches, borders are increasingly militarized in exclusionary ways (such as the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, or the Mexican-US borders attest to), and boats full of African migrants flee across watery borders, often ending up on the bottom of the Mediterranean rather than across it, that borders are death maps continues to be obvious to those most affected by their violence. And, as Benjamin Ndugga-Kabuye & Tia Oso’s essay in this series documents, borders affect and target certain bodies disproportionately and in differing ways – they maintain the privilege of few at the expense of many. Colonial borders work to contain, exclude, separate and kill.

As Seun Kuti states in the introductory quote and as this series demonstrates, our borders are currently all wrong. But are all borders wrong?

In the recognition of borders as the death maps of empire, migrant justice advocates and others have sought various configurations of ‘no borders’ or ‘open borders’ as a way of re-imagining a new, decolonial world. As Craig Fortier detailed in his essay in this series, various Indigenous activists, scholars and communities have contested these articulations in nuanced and intersectional ways. In these contestations there is the recognition that conceptions of ‘no borders’ or ‘open borders’, particularly in the North American context that most of these writers write from, are conceptualized on Indigenous lands. Byrd (2011) recognizes indigeneity as a necessary obstacle to ‘the commons’ as a means of decolonization because the commons is conceptualized on and through lands stolen from Indigenous peoples; the idea of the commons was not only always exclusionary, as Kim Christen (2012) argues, but always already embedded in colonial dispossession.

Chandra Mohanty further complicates our understanding of borders by examining them in re the body; as she argues, “Borders suggest containment and safety, and women often pay a steep price for daring to claim the integrity, security, and safety of our bodies and our living space” (pp. 1-2).  Indigenous activists and educators – such as the Native Youth Sexual Health Network – have demonstrated strong connections between colonial gender violence and settler dispossession of land. Indigenous borders and bodies are always seen as violable in the colonial context.

If the imagining and building of decolonial futures and worlds must happen (as Leigh Patel argues in her essay in this series) and it happens on Indigenous land, which itself contains knowledges, stories and history, including knowledge of borders, what are the decolonizing relationships that we can engage with by understanding Indigenous sovereignties and ways of engaging borders as relational? How can we engage and mobilize Indigenous knowledges in ways that do not further replicate the terror on which the current colonial model is built? How can we imagine decolonial futures that connect struggles and do so on ‘selfsame land’?

Browns Childs (2006) examines ‘woods edge’, the English translation of a Haudenosaunee term, as a border where other Indigenous nations and communities would stop at and declare their intent to communicate and negotiate passage through the territory. These borders were “a place of negotiation, reciprocity and mutual respect among peoples coming from different locations” (p. 166). They allowed for both the protection of the community contained within the borders (similar to Mohanty’s understanding of borders as protectionary) but also the possibility of dialogue and reaching out to others. These borders were “locations that both open up the world while also offering sanctuary to those within them” (Brown Childs, 2006, p. 165).

Joseph Bauerkemper and Heidi Stark (2012) re-tell a traditional Anishinaabeg story that illustrates how borders are connected to Anishinaabe sovereignty, as well as the land that the sovereignty comes from. In it, the borders are determined through people’s relationship to the land and their protection of it. The story also illustrates how the borders are protected and maintained through relationships, but also permeable in that, through kinship relations, they interact with other Indigenous nations who recognize and respect Anishinaabeg sovereignty. In this, the Anishinaabeg are able to both maintain borders that protect their sovereignty, and also participate in trans-national relations of mutual respect.

If Indigenous border practices enact forms of relationality embedded in the respect of Indigenous sovereignty, adoption practices might also articulate and gesture to alternative forms of relationality embedded in Indigenous epistemologies and practices.

There have been cases in which First Nations in Canada have attempted to adopt those facing state mandated deportation, in attempts to circumvent state border enforcement. In 2006, Sandy Bay Anishinaabe First Nation attempted to adopt a Nigerian nun, through customary Anishinaabe adoption practices, who had claimed refugee status and had been living with the community. The Canadian Federal Court overruled the adoption and the nun was subsequently deported. In other cases, uncertain histories, often wrought by colonial borders, have left Indigenous peoples facing and attempting to navigate deportations, and also considering customary adoptions as a possible way to circumvent state interventions.

Many have gestured to treaties as one way in which Indigenous understandings of relationality might guide current complexities within settler nation, but what other tools are available within Indigenous epistemologies? Diplomacy, border making, and adoption offer possible avenues. What do cases such as these offer in regards to understanding and exploring how Indigenous sovereignty and laws circumvent the state and assert alternate forms of relationality and futurity? In these ways, Indigenous sovereignty enacts new forms of relationality outside of state violence, both as a means of harm reduction but also in enacting futuristic possibilities.

In her essay in this series, Zoe Todd centers this relationality as central to navigating solidarities between Brown, Black and Indigenous peoples. In this, she echoes what Gaztambide-Fernandez (2012) lays out in our first journal issue as ‘relational solidarity’, where he connects the constant negotiation of boundaries as central to a decolonial pedagogy of solidarity that recognizes complex and sometimes contradictory locations and histories. In centring relationality that exists in excess of the state, the confines of citizenship, inclusion and recognition are refused.

As may already be obvious, this essay is more of a series of questions and linkages than a cogent answer to the complex provocations wrought by the various strands of colonial dispossession. In making links, I hope to gesture to the ways in which these questions are already being engaged within decolonization studies by a wide range of Indigenous (and non-Indigenous) scholars, particularly Indigenous feminists; and by asking questions I hope to shed some light on the ways in which there is still need to further disentangle colonial histories of and the ongoing processes of displacement and dispossession.

In doing so, I believe Indigenous epistemologies and bodies of knowledge offer a vital starting point for understanding these intersections of migration, immigration and decolonization. Indigenous epistemologies are always epistemologies of movement, of other-worldly possibilities that defy the colonial drive to fix indigeneity spatially and temporally. As both Dylan Miner and Zoe Todd demonstrate in their essays – these complex entanglements demand creative solutions and imaginative visioning to guide the relationship building necessary for decolonization. Work by Indigenous scholars such as Mishuana Goeman, Karyn Recollet, and Jarrett Martineau demonstrate the ways in which Indigenous motion is both rooted in land and also creatively in motion.

The borders are all wrong, and to perforate these death maps of empire, to redraw the ways in which each of us are connected to one another, demands a commitment to creative reimaginings of other worlds and the decolonial relationality necessary to bring them into existence.


Further Resources on immigration and decolonization (open access)

“We are all here to stay? Indigeneity, migration and ‘decolonizing’ the treaty right to be here,” by Amar Bhatia: http://windsor.scholarsportal.info/ojs/leddy/index.php/WYAJ/article/view/4411/3614

“The Indigenous as Alien,” by Leti Volpp: https://www.law.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Volpp.Indigenous-as-Alien.pdf

“Black Immigrants’ Lives Matter: Disrupting the Dialogue on Immigrant Detention,” by Marybeth Onyeukwu: http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/32007-black-immigrants-lives-matter-disrupting-the-dialogue-on-immigrant-detention

“Decolonizing Together,” by Harsha Walia: https://briarpatchmagazine.com/articles/view/decolonizing-together

“Decolonizasian: Reading Asian and First Nations Relations in Literature,” by Rita Wong: http://canlit.ca/pdfs/articles/canlit199-Full_Issue.pdf

It’s not Open Access, also recommended is Harsha Walia’s excellent book, Undoing Border Imperialism.

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