“The Indigenous Sovereign Imaginary”

Over the past few weeks, scholar & educator ‘Umi Perkins has been posting and publishing guest posts about sovereignty at his awesome blog. One guest post was written by the amazing Kyle Kajihiro! Their posts inspired me to reflect on the topic of sovereignty as a poet and indigenous literature scholar. ‘Umi was kind enough to allow me to share those thoughts on his blog, so I am posting below the reflection I wrote. Happy reading:

Throughout my career as a poet and scholar, I’ve been inspired by Native American writers and thinkers. I am reminded of their influence because of how central the concept of sovereignty is within the field of indigenous literary studies.

One early influence is the poet Simon Ortiz—his book, from Sand Creek, is where the “from” of my own from unincorporated territory book cycle comes from. The first sentence of the “Preface” to Ortiz’s book has also haunted me as a writer: “How to deal with history.”

His question is haunted by my own: How to heal from history? To me, part of that healing involves sovereignty.

In “Toward a National Indian Literature: Cultural Authenticity in Nationalism” (1981), Ortiz taught me that native writers have “a responsibility to advocate for their people’s self-government, sovereignty, and control of land and natural resources; and to look also at racism, political and economic oppression, sexism, supremacism, and the needless and wasteful exploitation of land and people, especially in the U.S.”

If we are what we imagine, then we must be able to imagine sovereignty. That takes courage, and very few writers express as much courage as Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. In her essay “The American Indian Fiction Writers: Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, the Third World, and First Nation Sovereignty” (1996), she draws our attention to stories that articulate “the sovereign rights and obligations of citizens of the First Nation of America as modern concepts.” She asserts that native writers must focus their fiction on becoming “nation-centered,” thus providing native readers with a sovereign imaginary.

A sovereign imaginary is akin to what Robert Allen Warrior, in Tribal Secrets: Recovering American Indian Intellectual Traditions (1995), calls “intellectual sovereignty” (or “Blackjacks discourse”). Intellectual sovereignty involves carefully choosing who we invite “into the sovereign space that is our intellectual praxis.” By centering our critical practice within native intellectual traditions, we “enter the dialogue with both a pro-Indian awareness of our own strength and an openness to what the experiences of others have to teach us.”

Echoing Warrior’s sentiments, Craig S. Womack writes in Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism (1999): “the ongoing expression of a tribal voice, through imagination, language, and literature, contributes to keeping sovereignty alive in the citizens of a nation and gives sovereignty a meaning that is defined within the tribe rather than by external sources.” He goes further to suggest that sovereignty serves as a “useful literary concept” within native literary aesthetics.

Two critics (among others) who exemplify this kind of work are Penelope Myrtle Kelsey and Daniel Heath Justice. Justice’s Our Fire Survives the Storm: A Cherokee Literary History (2006) examines Cherokee literature through Cherokee intellectual and literary concepts. Kelsey’s Tribal Theory in Native American Literature: Dakota and Haudenosaunee Writing and Indigenous Worldviews (2008) looks at Dakota literature through Dakota knowledge. Both works root their theoretical praxis in their respective tribal epistemologies. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Justice present his work at the Native American Indigenous Studies Association annual conference; and I recently presented alongside Kelsey at the Modern Language Association conference (a panel on indigenous literature & language). I aspire to the heights and depths of their work.

Through these critical texts, we can see that the discourse of sovereignty has inspired writers and scholars to think about how sovereignty applies to our own intellectual and literary practices. In turn, we see how our work can contribute to the imagining, possibilities, and sustainability of a sovereign future.

Lastly, I’d like to mention Stuart Christie’s Plural Sovereignties and Contemporary Indigenous Literature (2009), in which he examines “literary articulations of sovereignty” in the works of “indigenous author-sovereigns.” I’ve never thought of myself as an “author-sovereign”—since there are still many colonial aspects of my intellectual and writing practice—but I love the idea because it is empowering. Relating more to the thread on this blog, Christie points out how “sovereignty has become effectively pluralized,” in the sense that there are “diverse indigenous experiences of sovereignty.”

Just as indigenous peoples around the world have expressed and enacted their sovereignty in various political, governmental, cultural, and economic formations—there are many of us who are still fighting to fully exercise our sovereignty. Part of the fullness of sovereignty—in both its rhetoric and reality—is its power as an intellectual and literary practice.

As an indigenous poet and critic, I find much needed healing in the thought that someday our plural sovereignties will (to quote Christie) “converge downstream…along a shared sovereign horizon.” Every poem emerges from that horizon.

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