Inhabiting the Antagonism


Inhabiting the Antagonism

What do today’s infrastructures of outrage really provide? Can online discussions about incidents of racism assist in overcoming the reproduction of historically unequal Western worlds? Taking as a starting point the viral circulation of a video from the last Indigenous Peoples March, Lou Cornum discusses the problematics and limitations of today’s discourse on decolonization. Going beyond argumentation about the politics of recognition and representation, the article emphasizes that worlds without walls, borders, and prisons can only truly be imagined together with those now struggling against them and who knew no such separations in the first place. As Cornum suggests, it is new forms of “unbordered thinking” that are needed for processes of decolonization to be enacted, and for new ways of living together to emerge.


“The Indian Wars never ended in the Americas. Native Americans acknowledge no borders; they seek nothing less than the return of all tribal lands.”
-Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead

There is nothing very interesting to me about whether or not a white young man is racist. It is not a great mystery. Solved, it reveals no horizon of possibility beyond the already known and settled. I won’t soon forget the face of Nick Sandmann because I will see it again and again in different forms. In the long lineage of white men who wrestle their whiteness from the process of confronting indigeneity, he is just another boy with a smirk on his face. On January 8, 2019 at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, D. C., Sandman faced Omaha elder and activist Nathan Phillips, in a moment thick with the pre-ordering violence of his position and the man he stood before. Sandmann might as well have been at summer camp. There are spaces, whole retreats where young white men are trained to be citizens. Buses will be charted to take them there.2

The video circulates. Others emerge. Just as people have made a hobby of searching for clues in overly-complicated plots of prestige dramas, others turn to these clips dissecting movements, intentions, chronology. For what? To confirm the proper, acceptable roles of victim and perpetrator. As if we do not know who wins and who loses in the story of America’s settlement. The result is that there is no way to understand the encounter except to cast certain fault with the role of Black Israelite protestors, the one group who has been heard from the least. Their politics and community being hardly understood in the sprawling networked story that is being formed, the Black Hebrew Israelites have become a convenient source of blame and projected aggression for the conflict. The narratives that cohere this world are bound tightly together as a defensive pose against the threat of Black existence. The presence of the Black Israelites is remarked on as if to negate any discussion of how the history of racial violence is operating at the scene, only in the following days for people to draw comparisons between images of white youth jeering at Dorothy Counts, the first Black person to attend an all-white school, and stills of the video of Sandmann’s smirk.

At the same time, ndns who are not Black become a spectacle.3 The figure of the Indian, once feared for their alterity, is now mocked. Both the Black subject and the Indigenous subject, though, are figured as the trigger, the problem, the offender. The whole affair becomes a well-worn recital of the confused ways in which Americans understand race and politics. Black people and Indigenous people are recognized less as real humans and more as symbolic categories through which they try to understand the inequalities of this world and rehabilitate their emergent existence from the exclusionary regime of the human. If this is what it means to be seen and spoken about, then along with questioning and unrooting the politics of recognition, we must also re-consider the politics of representation, in a valence exceeding the political.4

The online discussion of the confrontation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial reveals an overinvestment in an infrastructure of outrage that supports nothing. It is a closed circuit, a track to nowhere.5 Or rather a track around the same. How do we get to the gaps of this encounter? What conduits lead to another way of not simply reproducing this world again and again but building a different one? Much has been made of the young men coming for the pro-life march, but less has been raised about the actual motivations and demands of the Indigenous Peoples March. Indigenous grievances to the settler state remain little understood in a battle of optics. We might start with the words of Phillips himself, recorded after but in direct response to being surrounded by the Covington Catholic School students. “This is Indigenous lands. You know we’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did, for millenniums, before anyone else came here. We never had walls. We never had prisons. We always took care of our elders, took care of our children. We always provided for them, you know? We taught them right from wrong. I wish I could see that energy of the young men to, you know, put that energy to make this country really great.”

His statement contains so many kernels of the decolonization process, and a note of its contradictions. Phillips links Indigenous lands to an image of a world where borders and prisons do not exist and a world where all people, even those unable to work or produce, are provided for regardless. The claim to Indigenous lands here is followed by a vision of what that means, what kind of relationships and structures for organizing life that entails. “Indigenous lands” is not necessarily a boundaried set of territories that Phillips is proclaiming but rather a set of practices. “Indigenous lands” in this instance is conceived as being the grounds of relations. This is prison abolition work. This is work against the imperial border, the colonial border, the borders of accumulation and extraction. Phillips says, “this is Indigenous lands,” and he means this is where Indigenous practices come from. This is what we are capable of: supporting people, providing for each other across ability and need, without the construction of mass cages and sprawling systems of containment.

And yet Phillips ends with an invocation of “this country,” expressing the desire for the young men to help build the future of a really great America. It is a familiar rhetorical move mostly meant to say that the memory of a great America is a false one. It is also perhaps a move to ensure that his other statements are not brushed aside as being too antagonistic. How do we make the antagonism inhabitable? I’d rather not imagine an America at all. Maybe Nathan Phillips would like that, too. Maybe there are some things that are hard to say in some places, to certain faces. We need different forms to be able to speak together. To ask the young men to join in a project of making America actually great is to suggest a future of the colony. Everyday, the colony works to propel itself further and further into the future. We do not need to help it further. Instead, I would call for us to flee the scene of white snarling and find others to help create as many models, images, simulations, and rehearsals of a world without the colony. That is the world that can cultivate Phillips’ future memory (in saying it was like this before, we believe it can be like this again) of lands.

The nuances of inter-group difference between, say, Phillips and me, are completely overlooked in constructions of individual Native people as solo-standing monoliths for mass suffering. The circle of young men around Phillips is subsumed by a larger circle that cannot see the lines it cuts. This is the gathering of citizen commentators. Distinguishing themselves as the proper bearers of liberal democracy, these commentators see themselves negating the actions and motivations of ugly whiteness but they can only do so behind this mask. Within this framework, the face of Sandmann appears as if from some dream, summoned from the depths of American consciousness. These are white people who, spurred by this confrontation, suddenly want to know what can be done, how can I decolonize (while of course looking deep into their navels or well-worn Western theory to ask what, indeed, is decolonization)? This is a move to innocence in the guise of accusation. Citizenship for Americans who are not Native or Black is reinforced by participation. While perhaps taken for granted, their citizenship means a lot more to some than they are willing to admit. Eventually, they break down and give their opinion. They rush to “feel for” Nathan Phillips, to state their affective stake. As always looking to inhabit the Native, their intervention assumes its own legitimacy.

It is easier to see the interconnections and global scale of Indigenous dispossession than it is to intervene. Consider for instance the December 2018/January 2019 U.S. government shutdown, the longest in American history. In this scenario, the refusal to fund the construction of a border wall (beyond what has already been built) then domino effects into further restrictions on the resources sent to Indigenous communities who have been forced into dependency on a foreign power. The continued supply of foods, goods, and services to reservations becomes tied to the imperial project of wall-building to prevent the movement of peoples displaced by U.S. military and economic intervention.

One of the banners at the Indigenous Peoples March read: “There is No O’odham Word for Wall.” This phrase, the assertion of an un-bordered world and way of thinking, has been uttered before in the people’s protests and actions against the implementation and maintenance of a U.S. border on Tohono O’odham land. The Tohono O’odham are a tribal nation that exceeds the southern border of the United States. In the face of the militarized border, many Tohono O’Odham people and the tribal government have protested both the border that cuts through their territory and the violence that makes it possible—a violence that is both historical and of the everyday. The wall that Sandmann’s peers called out for is summoned and made possible through dispossession. The territory is called Papagueria in the O’odham language, and it extends far below the southern border of the United States. In the much smaller section that is the Tohono O’odham reservation, comprising lands held in trust by the U.S. government but supposedly governed by a sovereign tribal government, border patrol agents come and go at their whim. Their machines and systems of surveillance come with them. A large tower is being constructed on the Ta’k Va’vak mountain range considered sacred by the O’odham, funded by a $700-million Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan.

The infrastructure of citizenship unfurls for commerce. Passing by the tower meant to police the former are the roads meant to make the latter flow. The CANAMEX Corridor is a series of highways, rails, and fiber optic lines connecting the NAFTA nations of Canada, the United States, and Mexico, and facilitating an easy flow of extracted resources and/or the means (machinery, parts, etc.) to extract more. It extends upward to the tar sands extraction projects of Alberta, Canada. It is a stretching manifestation of a continental motif: infrastructure of displacement, dispossession, and desecration. What I want to gesture to are the many linkages of Indigenous people’s struggles and the many obfuscations that keep such linkages from counter-actualizing.

Decolonization. This word has lost its precision. Its cut. Even as the article “Decolonization is not a Metaphor is widely circulated, still the injunction “decolonize” and the shimmering goal of “decolonization” is used to stand in for what we cannot articulate as “what is to be done” or “what is to come.”6 Building relationships and cultivating relationality counter to Western forms of sovereignty is part of the hard, long-term work of actually existing de-colonization. While the claiming of a commons has been criticized for its reproduction of colonial conditions of appropriating land for the use and benefit of settlers, Craig Fortier discusses the potential of a decolonial commons or a practice of “decolonial commoning.” In the romance of the commons espoused by the white settler there is the continuing assumption of indigeneity as resource. In the first month of 2019, in a solidarity action in Ontario with the people at the Unist'ot'en Camp, increasingly surrounded by law enforcement pressures, Anishinaabe organizer Tori Cress condemned the use of Indigenous peoples, Indigenous lands, Indigenous life as a resource. She addressed the aggression of TransCanada’s pipeline projects as relentlessly extractive, supported by and reinforcing a total relationship of extraction between Canada, the corporations it favors, and Indigenous peoples and their lands. This extraction impulse Cress identifies also holds true for the liberals and leftists who turn to Indigenous ideas (or simply their impressions of such) as the needed salve for their own utopias.

Decolonization builds, prefigures and is delivered by infrastructures against discrete structures. Practices of decolonization would extend individualized action by proliferating the chances for materially supporting collectives. I say “would” because although decolonization is a project tied to others in history, I speak here of a kind of potential decolonization imminent in the present. Decolonization as a theory I want to understand more clearly; decolonization as a theory that is also an enacting. A process Leanne Simpson describes as producing more life and re-creating the conditions for living.7 This proliferation of life requires, among other things, forms of unbordered thinking.

Juxtaposed but not antagonistic to the open border is the blockade. Reverse their flows. Let the people pass. Stop the capital. Glen Coulthard reminds us “If you want those in power to respond swiftly to Indigenous peoples’ political efforts, start by placing Native bodies (with a few logs and tires thrown in for good measure) between settlers and their money, which in colonial contexts is generated by ongoing theft and exploitation of our land and resource base.” The blockade is both an interruption of infrastructure and the living out of another one, both material and social. Most recently, I’ve been following the efforts of the blockade camp at Unist’ot’en, one site of many in contemporary Canada where the government provides the violent enforcement necessary to further oil and gas industry profits. Coastal GasLink, a subsidiary of TransCanada, is invoking the full force of the law and the government has, as always, assisted the corporation in its intimidation tactics and aggressive acts of capital accumulation (Canada, it must be remembered, deployed the largest number of troops since the Korean War to enforce the private control of a Québécois golf course in 1991). In the United States, the fights continue in courts and on the land against the Dakota Access Pipeline, uranium mining in the Grand Canyon, and fracking sites across many states. If there is any outlet for outrage, it should be directed at the material support of these movements. Not the endless reproduction of the expert and the public persona and the adjudicators of false morality, but rather the legal funds, the supplies, the space for educational outreach, the resources for coalitions. To these ends, the internet might facilitate the distribution of diffuse solidarity resources but, as yet, it remains locked in a system of individual personal responsibility. It’s a start. We might find others.

Two years ago, during the last days of summer, I sat on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, watching a giant paper-mâché bird travel by in the West Indian Day Parade and I thought about the broken but persistent line of Indigenous life that travels in many directions from Africa, across the Atlantic, getting tangled up in the islands of the Taíno, the Arawak and others before unfurling, perhaps a little frayed now, in the United States of America. Those brought here in slavery crossed waters and crossed worlds to continents inhabited and organized so much differently than today.8 The entanglements of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and settler colonial dispossession and genocide of Indigenous peoples have formed a world of obscuring and gratuitous violences. My little life, the trajectory I’ve charted through places and between people, is all caught up in it. Streams, strings, these metaphors come easy but they don’t quite capture the image of being adrift among the channels of all possible worlds laid for now in the current one deeply sedimented with the past. It is perhaps because I have experienced my indigeneity as an alienation from belonging, as a kind of pre-existing condition of heartbreak (born with a hole between the aortic chambers) that I am always looking for what gets lost in the gaps. In the overlapping connections at the crossroads and the chasms, I feel the dangers of flattening history, anxiously overlooking difference, refusing conflict.

In everything I write these days, I return to the Natalie Diaz poem “American Arithmetic” and I find myself, in one way or another, reciting her lines: “I am trying not to become a museum of myself/ I beg let me be lonely but not invisible.” If we are truly to step outside the glass panes in the museum of the nation, that stride must come through a long process of questionings and a concentrated effort of considering how we want to be with each other. This ideally is a pleasure. Perhaps it becomes one. My love is always saying, as we encounter the various pains of different scales in different places, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” It could feel so much better.

This essay also appears in the printed issue #3 of ROM as part of a media partnership. 


  • 1. Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991), Front Matter.
  • 2. On January 18, 2019, a day both the Indigenous Peoples March and an anti-abortion March for Life were convening in Washington, D.C., a video was posted on various social media sites showing a young man from Covington Catholic School wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat while standing and smirking in front of Native elder Nathan Phillips of the Omaha people. The video quickly spread online with many liberal and leftist types condemning the young men and many more providing multiple interpretations of the video’s events. Responding to the backlash and ensuing media circus, Covington Catholic School conducted an investigation and cleared their students of involvement in any act of harassment or biased speech.
  • 3. ndns is shorthand for the original misnomer coined by Christopher Columbus when he said he encountered “Indians.” It has been adopted by many North American Indigenous people as a kind of reappropriation of a misrecognition.
  • 4. See the work of Audra Simpson, Glen Coulthard, and Leanne Simpson on how politics of recognition, that is efforts at wresting Indigenous self-determination vis-à-vis the legitimizing mechanisms of the settler colonial state are a political and social dead-end for the maintenance of alterity in Indigenous life.
  • 5. There was a massive amount of social media chatter about the incident, spawning hot takes on all platforms, tweet threads of video analysis and facebook fights over differing interpretations, which served to keep the media cycle churning in its coverage, focusing not only on the particulars of the confrontation but making a story out of social media outrage as well.
  • 6. Eve Tuck, and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor.” in Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society. Vol 1, No 1 (2012):, 1-40. This article’s title remains one of the most powerful memes in indigenous studies: a constant failing reminder of the material, political practice of decolonization as a process of literally un-settling the lands of Turtle Island. Decolonization is also not a singular, in time or space, and this article should be read and complicated alongside texts arising outside or from other margins of the global north.
  • 7. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Dancing On Our Turtle's Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence (Winnipeg: ARP Books, 2011).
  • 8. This image is a reference to Crossing Waters, Crossing Worlds: The African Diaspora in Indian Country, ed. by Sharon Holland and Tiya Miles, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).


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