In Phil Henderson’s July 2020 Briarpatch review of my new book, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants, he erroneously claims that I “drive a wedge between Indigenous nations and migrant communities,” “merely assert that Indigenous sovereignty reflects Eurocentric theories of sovereignty,” and have “little to offer for anti-colonial work.” Since he engages so little with my arguments, he seems to have both mis-read – and missed reading – huge chunks of my book. Perhaps most troubling, however, is his misrepresentation of the spirit and intent of my work.
Finding ways to bring people who were – and remain – separated by the categories of Native and Migrant together in a shared anti-colonial (and now anti-postcolonial) struggle, lies at the core of Home Rule. As I unequivocally state, this book, “is my effort to contribute to a deepening and strengthening of a collaborative project of decolonization by making it truly collaborative.” As part of this effort, I highlight the historical junction where imperial-states created categories of “Native” and “Migrant” to divide and weaken people’s collective resistance to colonialism, and I show how national liberation struggles deepened the separation between people sorted in these two categories. When successful, new nation-states passed citizenship and immigration laws to determine – and limit – membership in each group. Yet Henderson ignores my efforts to explain how the wedge between Natives and Migrants was created and how it has been sustained. Instead, he states that I am responsible for its existence.
As part of this effort, I highlight the historical junction where imperial-states created categories of “Native” and “Migrant” to divide and weaken people’s collective resistance to colonialism.
Perhaps he does so because Home Rule documents how the politics of autochthony (or indigeneity) is the historic and ideological basis for the politics of national sovereignty – across the world and across the left-right political spectrum. I spill a great deal of ink examining the entire register of autochthonous claims to national sovereignty, not just one part of it (e.g. the far-right version). To leave out some claims, I believe, would be a breach of political and scholarly integrity.
Across the nine chapters of Home Rule, I develop my argument for how the intensifying hostility toward Migrants is increasingly carried out in the name of protecting the sovereignty of people understood as indigenous. For example, I examine how the current genocide of Rohingya people in Burma (or Myanmar) is justified by its perpetrators as nothing more than an expulsion or even extermination of “colonizing Migrants” from indigenous Burmese soil. I examine a particularly uncanny version of autochthonous politics in Europe, as well as in the former White Settler colonies (now White supremacist nation-states) such as Canada. Shamelessly, White supremacists have re-cast themselves as the Natives of the national territories they claim to be sovereigns over and justify their violent rule as part of their own “anti-colonial” politics. This is evident in the adoption of autochthonous discourses asserting that White people are the indigenous people of Europe as well as in claims that White people in the White supremacist states are Native to them because Europeans “brought civilization” (i.e. state rule) and “improved” these territories (i.e. brought capitalist social relations).
I also look at the centrality of ideas of nationhood and territorial sovereignty to a wide range of indigenous activists and scholars struggling against colonialism in Canada, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. I argue that dropping the “White” in White Settler colonies and labeling people of colour as “settler colonists” is part of the global hardening of nationalism(s) across the world and the intensification of anti-immigrant politics. I analyze efforts by both the Mohawk Nation and the Cherokee Nation to expel people regarded as non-members of their respective nations and make them ineligible for residency and rights in Mohawk or Cherokee territories. I argue that such practices are both predictable and inevitable when anti-colonial struggles become subsumed under claims to national territorial sovereignty.
I spill a great deal of ink examining the entire register of autochthonous claims to national sovereignty, not just one part of it (e.g. the far-right version). To leave out some claims, I believe, would be a breach of political and scholarly integrity.
Yet Henderson makes no mention of any of my research on the pitfalls of a politics of autochthony or the co-optation of anti-colonial struggle by nationalist movements fighting for territorial sovereignty. Ignoring these arguments allows Henderson to claim that I offer “no sustained engagement with the history of inter-nationalism in many Indigenous communities.” This is categorically false.
It is somewhat embarrassing for me to have to recite parts of my extensive bibliography; however, to set the record straight, I note my engagement with the important work of Taiaiake Alfred, Audra Simpson, Leanne Simpson (albeit a different article than the one Henderson mentions), Lee Maracle, Ovide Mercredi, Mary Ellen Turpel, Gail Guthrie Valaskakis, Emma LaRoque, and others working in (and against) the Canadian context.
While I disagree with many of their arguments, particularly claims that their theories of indigenous national sovereignty are inherently different than those of other national sovereignty projects, Western or non-Western, I do not ignore them. Moreover, In contrast to Henderson’s claim that I equate indigenous sovereignty movements in Canada with White supremacist projects, I make it clear early on in Home Rule that while the politics of autochthony across the world do share the core beliefs (i.e. the link between autochthony and political authority), I do not view the two as equivalent.
In regard to Henderson’s claim that my analysis of indigenous national sovereignty movements is Eurocentric, I must say, as I do in Home Rule, that theories of sovereignty have never been only European. Theories of sovereignty are as old as various state-making projects, which began about 5,000 years ago. This makes them older than the existence of a racialized, political entity called “Europe.” Nowhere do I claim that modern theories of sovereignty such as those of Thomas Hobbes, which were used to legitimize European colonial projects, are the same as pre-colonial theories of sovereignty developed by people living in early states in the Americas (while noting that not all people in the Americas lived in state societies).
In a world where the national form of sovereignty dominates, the only claims with a chance of being heard are those made in the name of the “nation.”
What I do argue is that we would all benefit from paying attention to the structural and ideological relationship between class rule and territorial sovereignty. Doing so leads me to argue that rejecting nationalism – all nationalisms, including indigenous nationalisms “from below” – is critical to anti-colonial struggle. I remain unconvinced by arguments that the use of the term “nation” by various indigenous activists/scholars in Canada (and elsewhere) refers to pre-colonial ways of being. As is evident across the world, indigenous nationalism(s) are as organized – and as riven – by class, gendered, and racialized hierarchies as other nationalist projects. Moreover, as in nation-states across the world, each indigenous “nation” has people living and/or working within it who are considered to be “foreign” to it. People classified as such are differentially included in these “nations” because, as all nationalists do, “foreigners” are regarded as taking what belongs only to the recognized members of the “nation.” This reality of actually-existing practices of nationalism and sovereignty, I argue, must be dealt with head on, and not mystified by claims of indigenous exceptionalism in Canada.
I argue that the reason colonized people across the world make the argument for national territorial sovereignty is not because such arguments reflect the organization of pre-colonial societies, but because these sorts of claims are legible – can be heard – by those in power as legitimate. In a world where the national form of sovereignty dominates, the only claims with a chance of being heard are those made in the name of the “nation.” The enshrinement of the national right of “self-determination” in the founding 1949 Charter of the United Nations is evidence of this in both international law and norms.
Throughout Home Rule, I show that no “national liberation state” has actually ended the practices of colonialism. Nowhere has land (and water and air) been returned to those who labour on it. Nowhere have people been freed from the exploitation of their labour. Everywhere, the destruction of our planet is accelerating at a lethal pace. Gaps in income and wealth are greater now than at the height of the imperial era. This deadly state of affairs has come about regardless of whether or not “national liberation” has been fought for in the name of anti-capitalism, and whether or not it has been fought for by people identifying as indigenous.
Instead of providing us with freedom and justice, national liberation struggles have delivered us to capital and to sovereign power. Not only has the reach and power of capital and states increased in the post-World War Two period (which I call the Postcolonial New World Order), but also, nationalist ideologies of autochthonous sovereignty have normalized the (deeply related) ideas of “race” and “nation.” Demands for national sovereignty, which I argue are premised on ideas of autochthony, are therefore not best understood as theories of liberation but as a co-optation and containment of anti-colonial politics. There is no reason to believe that contemporary claims for national territorial sovereignty by still-colonized people will be any different. I make these arguments not to weaken the anti-colonial struggle but to strengthen it by moving us away from strategies shown to have utterly failed people.
Throughout Home Rule, I show that no “national liberation state” has actually ended the practices of colonialism. Nowhere has land (and water and air) been returned to those who labour on it.
Yet despite my lengthy arguments in this vein, Henderson seems especially motivated to portray Home Rule as having no relevance for anti-colonial activists/scholars. In his review for Briarpatch, his second review of this book, Henderson states that my work on outlining the contours of the Postcolonial New World Order is “significant history for those struggling for migrant justice today” but that Home Rule has “little to offer for anti-colonial work.” This perfectly illustrates how Migrants get taken out discussions of colonialism and anti-colonial work. His failure to understand that human displacement is also a product of colonialism (and, now, postcolonialism), shores up the (nationalist) illusion that the concerns of Natives and Migrants are indeed separate and incommensurate.
Indeed, Henderson appears to have no difficulty understanding those (few) elements of my work with which he agrees, while showing a startling lack of comprehension for that which he finds unpalatable. I find particularly unconvincing his seeming inability to recognize the metaphor of “language” in the allegory of the Tower of Babel story. Scandalously, he chooses to characterize me as a proponent for monolingualism as a vital tool for collective action. I do not tell the old story of the Tower of Babel – a retelling quite different from the official one in the Bible – to make the case that “a shared language is necessary for collective action,” as Henderson falsely maintains. Rather, I tell this tale to argue that when working together on a shared political project, builders can succeed in realizing their earthly liberation against the wishes of the powerful. By forcing his words into my mouth, Henderson makes the astonishing statement that “Sharma’s idea that a shared language is necessary for collective action is…troubling given Canada’s more than 150-year effort to destroy Indigenous languages.”
Henderson does not demonstrate any clearer engagement with my call for a planetary commons. The commons is not, I argue, about “sharing language” or “overcoming difference,” as he claims I say. Instead, I state that commoners “seek neither territory nor sovereignty but land and the ability to enjoy a livelihood on it without exclusion…” Drawing upon a growing body of literature on the commons, something Henderson seems unaware of, I show that the right held by every commoner is the right to not be excluded. This is what distinguishes common property from private property (where the title holder has the right to exclude others) or from sovereign rights (where sovereigns have the right to exclude people from membership in the political community). In the context of my lengthy arguments about the failure of autochthonous national sovereignty movements, I argue that decolonization is best defined as a return of our planetary commons.
I can, therefore, not help but ask what the purpose of Henderson’s misrepresentations of my arguments are. Is he afraid that people might seriously engage with Home Rule’s critique of autochthonous national sovereignty’s efficacy in ending colonial practices? Is his political investment in ending colonialism, or simply in sweeping aside any argument that does not align with the contemporary indigenous politics of national territorial sovereignty? I do not know, but I do hope that my response corrects Henderson’s mis-representation of my arguments.