Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Relating Indigenous and Settler Identities: Beyond Domination

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Relating Indigenous and Settler Identities: Beyond Domination

Article excerpt

Avril Bell (2014) Relating Indigenous and Settler Identities: Beyond Domination Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Reviewed by Jennifer Lawn

In this clear-headed comparative study of the settler societies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, Avril Bell argues for the autonomy and inherent cultural agency of indigenous peoples as a foundation for transforming colonial relations. Settler domination continues to be secured through a set of common discursive manoeuvres - fantasies of unity, myths of origin, entrenched narratives of innocence, the appropriation of authenticity - by which settler cultures have sought to secure a distinct identity from the imperial centre and legitimate their habitation on indigenous territories. This settler social imaginary relies on dual identity categories of authenticity and hybridity, operating both as claims of settler uniqueness and as demands on indigenous peoples, who have, in turn, strategically reframed these terms for their own purposes. Ultimately, however, Bell sees such resistance strategies, important as they are, as entangling indigenous groups within debilitating settler preoccupations. Shifting emphasis from theories of identity to theories of intersubjectivity, Bell critically examines the politics of recognition as a major avenue of redress for colonial injustices, then proposes an alternative framework based on Levinasian ethics. The challenge for settler is to strip away presumptive authority and learn to live with multiple temporalities, multiple systems of governance, multiple networks of relationship between human and non-human spheres - not only when those systems can co-exist comfortably with western forms of knowledge, but also, and most emphatically, when they prove incompatible.

Although much of this material is widely established in postcolonial discourse analysis, the issues and major contributions to the field are rarely set out so incisively, or with such careful balance between mapping the general pattern of settler colonial relations and attending to a range of local examples drawn evenly from across the CANZA states. Bell moves deftly between the work of core postcolonial theorists, representative examples, and individual voices and positions, managing salience and selection of material skilfully. Despite the breadth of coverage the discussion only rarely comes across as cursory, making Relating Indigenous and Settler Identities an invaluable resource in the field of settler studies and a useful text for postgraduate and upper-undergraduate level papers in identity and critical race studies.

The introduction briskly justifies Bell's preferred approach and terminology. The term 'settler' is preferred over 'coloniser' or 'invader' because of its association with land and hence permanent habitation in, and appropriation of, the land. However, 'neither indigenous nor settler are wholly defined by the colonial relation' (7). The CANZA nation-states belong in a single comparative framework, Bell maintains, because they share a 'criterial commonality' (11) through similar phases of history: a period of war, physical violence and mass displacement; an extended attempt at assimilation; and, particularly in recent decades, a turn toward political recognition and accommodation, together with a rather free (that is, both presumptive and largely uncompensated) appropriation of indigenous symbolism as part of nationhood. Despite the tendency of its colonists to see themselves as an originary people, the United States is thus included alongside the non-revolutionary Anglophone nation states, which are more conventionally regarded as cultural derivatives of Britain.

In addition to the premise of indigenous autonomy, Bell establishes two further core positions in the introduction. First, identity claims are inherently political, meaning that the forms in which claims are made will vary according to circumstance; but they are not arbitrary, in the sense that indigenous lifeworlds and knowledge systems remain, factually and foundationally, distinct from those of western cultural origins. …

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