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The Spirit of the Law: The Haunting of U.S. Federal Indian Law in the Contemporary Western
Harmon, Lauren A
“The Spirit of the Law: The Haunting of U.S. Federal Indian Law in the Contemporary Western,” examines the literary figure of the Native ghost, which I argue can enable both decolonial critique and epistemological reorientation within the fields of American and American Indian literatures. There is a critical tradition—arising from Lucy Maddox’s Removals and reaching fullest expression in Renee Bergland’s The National Uncanny—of reading Native ghosts as formative fantasies of the U.S. settler colonial imagination. In this interpretation, the figure projects a particular set of uniquely American cultural anxieties about property and conquest, and seeks to quell those anxieties with rehearsals of the disappearance of Native peoples. I, however, argue that this analysis fails to explain the ghost’s role in contemporary texts—particularly those by Native authors—because its logic assumes that when Native authors write literary ghosts, they are participating in the imaginative disappearance of Native peoples. “The Spirit of the Law” attempts to redress this critical aporia by reading four contemporary examples of the Native ghost together with formative cases in the body of federal Indian law in order to argue that the Native ghost indexes the possibilities of what Gerald Vizenor calls “survivance.” I maintain that the nexus of law and literature is a crucial juncture for understanding the Native ghost, because in order to adequately interpret American Indian literatures (or American Indians in literature), one must work to understand the ongoing colonial legal situation to which they respond. As Philip P. Frickey has remarked, “it is plain to anyone who will look that federal Indian law is the law governing the colonization and displacement of the indigenous peoples of this continent by Europeans” (Frickey 1974). Frickey suggests this uncomfortable reality as one reason federal Indian law is understudied in legal scholarship: it is an indictment of the myth of American exceptionalism and a testament to the ongoing legacy of colonialism in the United States. The texts treated in my dissertation do indeed respond to particular historical and legal formations enacted by federal Indian law and often offer imaginative alternatives to their premises and conclusions. These responses and alternatives are imagined, in these texts, through the figure of the Native ghost. Reading this way, it is possible to emerge from the trap of overdeterminism in which the Native ghost signals the state of Native life as always already conquered and extinct – a relic of the colonial imagination. Because federal Indian law is still good law, the responses to it imagined in these novels have ongoing resonance for debates about the status of Native land, sovereignty, and identity, to name a few of the legal issues on which my dissertation touches. As a result, the ghosts I describe resist rather than recapitulate the narratives of conquest and Manifest Destiny that have sequestered Native people in the U.S.’s mytho-historical frontier past. At the same time, “The Spirit of the Law” is oriented toward the ongoing critical reassessment of the potential of the image of the Native in literature as a means through which Native identities are represented and refracted. In this way, my project engages current methodological debates about the limits of suspicious reading; my dissertation argues that Native textual figures can respond to and imaginatively remake crucial historico-legal junctures that have enduring impacts on Native communities, underscoring the potential of literary narratives to point up and even remedy the imaginative exclusions of the law. My dissertation offers a reading of the literary figure of the Native ghost that is both historically and legally contingent, and invests that figure with considerable potential to affect imaginative and political outcomes. What is more, I suggest that Native ghosts signify radically differently when penned by Native authors, and to attend to those differences is necessary to understand how the figure might be politically effectual (and to why Native authors would use such a figure in the first place). The texts that comprise my four central chapters are all contemporary Westerns; I have confined myself to this genre because nowhere are the stakes of Manifest Destiny more starkly delineated. Just as trenchantly, nowhere are departures from that narrative more clearly undertaken and observed. It would be difficult to imagine a genre more attuned to the vicissitudes of the settler-colonial psyche; that is, it would make perfect sense to see Native ghosts in this genre that act as a return of the repressed. And it would equally make sense to see those spirits narratively quelled or quashed. For this reason, the Western strikes me as a particularly rich site from which to examine the contemporary deployment and power of the Native spectral figure. Much of American writing, but particularly the American Western, has always grappled with and interpreted American political realities and made them square with the national story. If one understands, as I do, the body of federal Indian law as perhaps the ultimate expression of the Westerns narratives of conquest and Manifest Destiny, then one may begin to see the connections between the ghosts that haunt contemporary Westerns and the ghosts that haunt the (post)colonial state as articulated within federal-tribal relationships. In this way, haunting represents not only fear and anxiety on the part of, or rather embedded within, dominant discourse, but in fact presents the possibility for radical change. The specter offers a generic critique that demonstrates the real effects of seemingly marginalized figures in a genre that would like nothing more than to conjure them away. By relocating the force of this critique from the settler colonial mind to the ghostly figure itself, my analysis comprehends the Native ghost as a resistant figure that constitutes an ongoing decolonial critique. My introductory chapter critiques the mechanisms of “discovery” as articulated in the foundational Supreme Court case Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823) through an examination of the spectral Native figures in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. This chapter demonstrates that even as the violent aggressors who serve as McCarthy’s protagonists enact the everyday labor of colonial violence as wrought under federal Indian law, they fail to erase Native people from the land (or the narrative) in the same way the case erases them from the landscape and narrative history of the United States. McCarthy’s spectral natives call attention to the realities of colonial violence and the ways in which it cannot account for the totality of Native lives under its regime. In other words, this chapter hopes to offer a condensed account of how the specter of native communal life has been conjured away through appropriation, and the ways in which its persistence in fiction reflects not only an ongoing cultural anxiety about the friability of the national story of settlement, but also an account of ongoing Native presence despite the incursions of conquest as articulated in Johnson. My second chapter builds on this argument through a reading of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and The Indian Removal Act (1830), extending the legal analysis to statutory law while reading the film as a metaphorical reversal of Indian Removal that imagines an anti-colonial history in which it is Euro-Americans, rather than Native Americans, who are rendered ghostly by the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny. In the film the Native character Nobody becomes a spiritual guide for the white protagonist William Blake, leading him away from Western development and through a landscape identified by stories and enlivened by the spirits of nature rather than delimited by property boundaries. Blake’s journey with Nobody is, for the white character, a re-imagination of landscape and a severing of that land from notions of property. William Blake begins the film as an accountant, and ends it as a poet, all the while becoming less and less corporeal – more like a ghost himself. Property is converted to poetic landscape, and the white protagonist becomes the entity that must and does finally disappear. In this way the film represents a direct critique of the Indian Removal Act of 1830: first, it decentralizes the narrative of white property ownership and reclaims the land as a sacred and living space; and second, it metaphorically reverses the doctrine of Manifest Destiny so that by the end of the film, the protagonist himself undergoes a physical and narrative transformation into a ghost (or a Dead Man) and is “removed” from the Western edge of the continent, while the Native people of the Makah reservation remain. The second half of the dissertation shifts to works by Native authors, demonstrating the differing epistemological and ontological stakes of the Native ghost in Native American fiction. The third chapter, through a reading of Anna Lee Walters’ Ghost Singer, reimagines the scope and possibilities of The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA, 1990). In the novel, the Smithsonian Institution is the a cipher for the entire colonial relationship between American Indians and Euro-Americans, coalesced particularly around the theft and preservation of Native human remains by government sanction. In particular, reading Walters alongside the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA: Public Law 101-601; 25 U.S.C. 3001-3013) reveals a prescient critique of federal attempts to restore aspects of Native sovereignty while remaining solidly within the colonial framework of a trust relationship with the tribes. Walters’ ghosts offer a way to imagine some of the key concepts of repatriation from a different epistemological frame than the western one employed by NAGPRA. In particular, her ghosts, as “stewards” of the items in the Smithsonian archive, revise and expand typical understandings of the Act’s requirements for cultural affiliation and standing. Through a reading of the novel and Bonnischen v. U.S. (otherwise known as The Kennewick Man case) this chapter examines the alternatives offered by Walters’ ghosts, and how those alternatives might begin to supplement the discourse of rights mobilized by NAGPRA with a repatriation marked by Indigenous concepts of kinship. The final chapter reads Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead as a radical redefinition of “Indian Country.” By reading the novel alongside the U.S. statute defining Indian Country, this chapter demonstrates how Silko’s “army” of the dispossessed, led by ghosts and ancestors, re-narrativizes and remaps what has come to be called, since the advent of colonialism, the Americas. In the process, Silko’s ghosts re-contextualize the entire colonial history of the United States (and Mexico) within the frame of an Indigenous narrative contained within the titular Almanac, providing a vision of radical anti-colonial action that is both tribal and accessible to all. In doing so, the novel decenters the colonial narrative in both its legal-historical and mythological registers; the ancestors that populate her novel demand an excision of the entire colonial apparatus, and a rethinking of the Americas as Indigenous territory first and always. Certainly as long as the cultural repression of American Indian genocide endures in the United States, ghostly Native figures will continue as functionaries to mark that unacknowledged violence. However, to suggest that the figure of the Native ghost can only exist in that register is to perform a further critical “removal” and to recapitulate the rhetorical maneuver that would see Native people as sequestered and irrelevant to the study of American literature. The four case studies offered here coalesce to provide a vision of the ghostly Native that is neither ineffectual nor static, but instead a dynamic figure that signals a powerful critique of the legal and historical contingencies of colonialism. Through these readings, I suggest a combination of mutable positions or practices as a framework in which we might begin to understand the Native Ghost as a figure that is not always already undermined by colonial violence
English literature; Native American studies; American studies
Cheyfitz, Eric T.
Craib, Raymond B.; Anker, Elizabeth Susan
English Language and Literature
Ph. D., English Language and Literature
Doctor of Philosophy
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International
dissertation or thesis
Except where otherwise noted, this item's license is described as Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International