Indigeneity and secularity:

Is the “native” secular?

posted by Vincent Lloyd

Stand With Standing Rock Nov 11-15 2016 | Image via Flickr user Leslie PetersonHeadlines scream of burgeoning populism around the world, but the shift in politics today could also be described as a return of nativism, and perhaps even of a certain indigeneity. Politicians speak of a people at home in a land, rooted in that land. They evoke the threats posed by those perceived to lack such roots: immigrants, racial minorities, and global elites. There is a romance to the land, from rural farms and mines, to the provincial village, to the post-industrial city—sites  of lost dreams, of vanishing greatness. The specifics of place are joined together under the heading of “nation,” but nation alone is cold and abstract; it must be joined with the warmth of nativeness—indigeneity—to capture the imagination. Of course there are agents involved: politicians conjuring the images and feelings of nativeness, and the powers that be—whiteness, patriarchy, neoliberalism—whom those politicians serve, wittingly or unwittingly.

To those on the left, the claims to indigeneity associated with resurgent populism ring hollow. They seem to be a clear case of false consciousness, particularly when juxtaposed with the moving language and images of “actual” indigenous communities: at Standing Rock, in Palestine, among the tribal people of India. (The recent embrace of a broad sense of “relationality” as the telos of critical scholarship in certain circles seems closely related.) Something sincere, even spiritual, ought to accompany indigeneity—a relationship to place that follows from inhabitance through generations, from time immemorial. What Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Narendra Modi represent, from this perspective, is idolatry: elevating worldly claims and frustrations to the register of the transcendent, sometimes in the name of the transcendent, to further political interests. In short, indigeneity run-amok is secular; genuine indigeneity is sacred. It follows quite naturally that we are all indigenous: Mother Earth is our home, fighting climate change is our sacred duty.

While indigeneity attracts or repels the left, claims to indigeneity are often simply illegible from the perspective of the secular state. It is hard to deny the religiosity of the “prayer camp” at Standing Rock and the claims to sacred land that it represented, but then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell responded in the language of “tribal rights reserved in treaties and federal law” and “Nation-to-Nation consultation.” However, as scholars and indigenous activists have shown, the legal framework in the United States has long been determined by the Doctrine of Christian Discovery that traveled from papal bull to case law, offering land rights to European settlers. More generally, settler colonialism has relied on a sense of colonized land as empty, secular, or demonic, to be incorporated into the Christian story—sometimes in explicit echoes of the Exodus narrative. In other words, the purported contrast between secular state and sacred indigeneity is really a contest between the state’s repressed Christianity and what, from this perspective, are new forms of paganism, Christianity’s threatening other.

Might it be the case that indigeneity is a product of secularity (whether taken on its face, or taken as repressed Christianity)? In other words, might claims to indigeneity from the right (nativism) and the left (sacred land, relationality) all be attempts to push against the imperative to exclude or manage religion, and particularly the normativity of religion, in a spiritual-but-not-religious era? A swirl of feelings, beliefs, practices, and languages circulate around indigeneity that certainly have a family resemblance to the religious. Where there is only space, not place, under the regime of the secular, indigeneity centers place. Where individuals are atoms, nomads, rational choice-makers under the regime of the secular, indigeneity embraces the pull of local community and tradition. If our age is secular, shaping all we are able to see and believe and feel, indigeneity would not be a purer outside, or a return of the repressed, but a rebellion from within—in the same way that contemporary evangelical Christianity and the Islamic revival are essentially rebellion from within.

Much detailed, contextual work would be needed to seriously investigate these issues. Academic interest in indigeneity is growing rapidly, but the complex connections between indigeneity and secularity remain relatively unexplored. Interest in indigeneity from settler colonial studies and American studies rarely focuses on religion and secularity (or, it embraces secularity). While scholars of secularism have increasingly attended to racial and ethnic diversity, and the variety of global contexts, indigeneity has rarely been a privileged analytical category. Connections between anti-Blackness and anti-indigenous structures and practices, against the shared backdrop of white supremacy, open fruitful conceptual terrain. The work of Sylvia Wynter, Willie James Jennings, and Jared Hickman around these issues promises to energize the field. How can different disciplinary approaches, regional focuses, and styles of analysis broaden, deepen, and reorient these emerging discussions? The short essays collected here push in this direction.

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Before there was Hillbilly Elegy, that reflection on what it means for white, working class Americans to feel indigenous, there were “hillbilly nationalists.” Sporting Confederate flags, with origins in the South and its urban diaspora, the Young Patriots Organization and related groups of white youths in the 1960s and 1970s denounced capitalism and racism, joining together with the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords to organize grassroots social institutions: free medical clinics, legal aid, and food distribution. The demands of the Young Patriots were articulated in entirely secular terms, and they showed ambivalence toward the symbols of romantic nativism (yes to the Confederate flag, no to the cowboy hat). They grappled with the entanglement of the indigenous and the political.

What would happen if we grapple with the indigenous, the political, and the religious all together?

Speaking at Detroit’s King Solomon Baptist Church in 1963, Malcolm X spoke of racism, the legacies of slavery, the need for black self-assertion, the centrality of grassroots organizing, and the need for an international perspective on struggles for justice. But at the root of things, “the basis of freedom, justice, and equality,” on his account, is “land.” The American Revolution was about land. The French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions were about the landless claiming land. Anti-colonial struggles are fundamentally about land. So, Malcolm concluded, black Americans must learn to claim land—it is the condition of possibility for black freedom dreams. For Malcolm, the demand for land was one that could unite Muslims and Christians.

What Malcolm X meant by land remains obscure. It is tempting to reduce land to sovereignty—to the secularized, modern concept of sovereignty as control over territory. But some of his listeners took him more literally. One of his hosts, Reverend Albert Cleage, would spend the 1970s developing a vision of black theology and then the 1980s and 1990s in grassroots fundraising to purchase land. In 1999 Cleage’s churches purchased a large farm in South Carolina, naming it Beulah Land after a biblical name for the land of Israel, and claiming it as “the largest black-owned farm in America.” According to Cleage (who changed his name to Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman), “Beulah Land can prophesy to the world more effectively than anything we could ever say.”

While some of Malcolm’s listeners sought land as part of an explicitly institutionally religious project, a new inflection on the Exodus narrative, others claimed land for ostensibly secular political projects. The Republic of New Afrika was formed in 1968 to claim the land of the Black Belt, in the Southern United States, for an independent black nation. Led by a “provisional government,” the land claim was justified because blacks had “met the international law requirements of inhabitance, development, and defense.” Closely related, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) has embraced the slogan “free the land” as it has advanced a variety of community organizing projects in the Black Belt while also pursuing strategic interventions in electoral politics. In 2013 and 2017 MXGM-supported candidates were elected mayor of the largest city in their claimed land: Jackson, Mississippi.

Might these be visions of post-secular indigeneity? Might it be the case that claiming indigeneity for blackness short-circuits the romance—the idolatry—that would render the indigenous available to reactionary political projects, calling into question the too-easy alignment between land, race, nation, history, and the sacred? It takes a certain faith, and dense, religion-like networks of practices and institutions, to focus political energy around such an apparently unlikely goal as establishing a new black nation on land that is now part of the United States. What might analogous forms of post-secular indigeneity, resistant to ideological cooptation, look like for Native American communities, Palestinians, or Adivasi? For environmental justice advocates?

Before such questions can be addressed, we must first grapple with secularity, how it so greatly pervades the present that it shapes the worlds of the most marginalized and the most powerful, and how it shapes the meaning of indigeneity. Or, from the opposite direction, we might ask: Is there a way to use the claims made by marginalized indigenous communities, rather than the representation of those claims in secularist discourses of the privileged, to question the logic of the secular?

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