By Thorne, Tanis C. | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, June-September 2008 | Go to article overview


Thorne, Tanis C., Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

As a form of conquest, intimate relations in colonial settings have long tantalized observers, but since the 1980s these relationships have gained center stage. Sylvia Van Kirk's Many Tender Ties and Jennifer S. H. Brown's Strangers in Blood--both published in 1980-were pioneering studies of interracial marriage in the fur trade. The emerging cadre of fur trade social historians (myself among them) explored women's agency, reconstructed kinship networks, and asked questions about the ethnicity of biracial and bicultural families. (1) Since Michael Foucault's assertion that sex is a '"dense transfer point' of power" began influencing such scholars as Ann Stoler, the feminists' credo that "the personal is political" has gained intellectual heft Scholars are finding renewed significance in both metissage and interstitial groups of mixed-bloods. The growing historiography on "intimate colonialism" strives to make "connections between the broad-scale dynamics of colonial rule and the intimate sites of implementation," explains Stoler. (2)

The well-researched papers in this special issue of Frontiers provide a rich sample of this exciting wave of scholarship on intermarriage, firmly joining traditional social history with cultural critical theory. That race and gender are culturally constructed categories wielded as pliant tools for hegemonic purposes is the premise emerging from these essays. The phrase "colonial project" signifies the systematic processes by which colonizers harness categories and hierarchies to legitimize rule and thereby circumscribe access to state entitlements, as well as to private resources such as sexual or marriage partners. Classification is a form of social control, as Desley Deacon emphasizes in her introduction to a previous issue of Frontiers on intermarriage. (3) Regulatory controls of the state extend into the private spheres of sexuality, marriage, and childrearing, identified as biopolitics by Michael Foucault. In the intimate relationships that cross boundaries between colonizers and colonized, the intersections of race, class, gender, and power become visible and thus accessible to analysis. As Peggy Pascoe writes, "few subjects are as potentially revealing as the history of interracial marriage," because it provides evidence of the "formulation and reformulation of race and gender and connections between the two." (4)

What is so attractive about this genre of "intimate colonialism" is that it dignifies the experience of real people's lives and honors the historically and spatially specific context while providing tools for comparative analysis. Jim Buss revisits the well trodden ground of the captivity narrative in his essay, "'They found and left her an Indian': The Whitening of Young Bear." As do other authors in this volume, Buss unmasks race and gender categories as historically constructed and mutable yet underscores the assertion that these categories are powerful instruments that control people's lives. Taking issue with the work of other scholars who have argued that captivity narratives foreground interracial marriages and acculturation and thus undermine racial categories, Buss reveals the unqualified triumph of the "ongoing colonial project." He argues that the captivity narratives served to erase White Bears strong affective bonds with her Miami husbands and the "vibrant" biracial and bicultural communities of the Great Lakes. Similarly, Heather Bouwman's poetry in this volume speaks of erasures of marriages that crossed boundaries:

  In her mother's attic, looking for me,
  our great-great-granddaughter finds only this
  on a slip of paper in a shoebox:
  m. [married] Abigail Koch (sp?), a 13-yr-old Indian.

In her essay, "The Benefits of Being Indian: Blood Quanta, Intermarriage, and Allotment Policy on the White Earth Reservation, 1889-1920," Katherine Ellinghaus's emphasis is on the loss and erasure resulting from state regulation and categorization. …

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