By

Taylor Brough

University of Vermont, B.A.

2016 CEDA Nationals Champion

I should start by saying that I think Frank Wilderson is right about the position of Native people in the US racial schema. In Red, White, and Black, he argues compellingly that Native people are situated in a liminal space between life and death—that we are haunted by the dual specters of sovereignty and genocide; that our demands occur simultaneously in a coherent register of land repatriation, land theft, and treaty rights and in an incoherent register of an incomprehensible and ongoing magnitude of massacres, rape, starvation, boarding schools, and smallpox. Wilderson’s work has provided me with some of the tools to describe the gap between coherence and incoherence, a gap which is made especially evident in debate rounds. And particularly clear is that Native debate[1] is inclined towards talking in the grammar of sovereignty rather than genocide.

I am here preoccupied with our enunciative capacities in debate—with what I perceive “Native debate,” and specifically non-Black Native debaters, to be doing in service of Settler/Master (mis)recognition, what the consequences of such doing might be, and what it might mean to push against the disciplining force of recognition in debate. The ontological fact of genocide/sovereignty as a dual positioning for Native people, coupled with academia’s push to identify ourselves at the site of (coherent and recognizable) trauma (what Wilderson terms “intra-human conflicts”), has led Native thought in debate, broadly, to do three related things:

1) prioritize the coherent discussion of sovereign loss over one of genocide and its incoherence,

2) articulate ourselves as always in conversation with (read: traumatized by) the Settler,

3) distance ourselves from a Black/Red conversation or from Black/Red theorizing. These three moves are all antiblack in addition to being an insidious manifestation of the genocide that structures half of our (non?)being.

Depressingly, if we were to historicize “Native debate,” we would have to begin with a litany of non-Native debaters reading “Give Back the Land,” offering sovereignty as a solution to a tragic history of genocide that relegates Native people to phobic/phillic objects of the past whose futures are in the hands of those Settlers who bravely dare to talk about them. The terrain in which everyone can become Native—or at least become an advocate for Natives—is a cleared landscape produced by genocide but also, significantly, produced by antiblack slavery.[2] This history of non-Native debaters’ representations of sovereignty, land repatriation, and treaty rights as the only solution to genocide also reaches into the present.

What is most disturbing to me about this ongoing history is that we have yet to tie virtually any debate round to actual, material land repatriation, sovereign gains, or the upholding of treaty rights. These material gains involve labor from Native people organizing at the grassroots level, not an academic labor from Settlers. Debate arguments do not facilitate sovereign benefits for Native peoples.

Further, the struggle for sovereignty itself does not overcome or solve genocide. The removal of the Hunkpapa Lakota Oyate and their relatives at the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock should be proof enough of this—sovereignty as a politic is often met with, rather than resolving, genocidal violence.

Non-Black Native people in debate have performed a similar land-based politic. Native debate has become so associated with words like “land,” “sovereignty,” “space,” “place,” “treaty rights,” and others, that it is almost impossible to theorize Native debate absent sovereignty as a grammar that marks our existence. So both non-Native debaters (who claim to advocate for Native peoples’ sovereignty) and Native debaters (who claim to advocate for something that usually falls into the grammar of sovereignty) are talking in essentially the same register, with incredibly limited slippage towards genocide as a vector of violence. And, for Native people, like non-Natives, debate arguments do not and cannot facilitate the material elements of decolonization that these land-based arguments frequently rely upon.[3]

Sovereign gains don’t happen in debate rounds, but for some reason the (mis)recognition of Native enunciation as sovereignty persists, in that the word “land” harkens to Native debate in almost every instance, that almost every debate involving Native people reading perceptibly “Native” arguments includes a discussion of “treaties” or “sovereignty” or “land-based pedagogy” or “spatiality.” What other reason could this be than a structure of desire around recognition from the Settler/Master? If we really follow the history of how “Nativeness” has been misrepresented in debate by Settlers, it becomes clear that much of contemporary Native debate, strangely (or as I argue, not so strangely), mimics these misrepresentations.

Of course, debate is an economy of (mis)recognition. That “Native” becomes coextensive with “land” in debate is no accident. It is an enunciation that has been evoked prior to the involvement of any Native debaters or coaches. And it is reiterated by non-Black Native debaters with increasing certainty about the truthiness of Native relationships to the land. Systematically absent from this conversation, of course, is a discussion of genocide. I have gestured above towards the ways that the desire for recognition from the Settler/Master motivates this conceptual move towards the register of sovereignty. As Wilderson writes,

“The crowding out, or disavowal, of the genocide modality [by the sovereign modality] allows the Settler/’Savage’ struggle to appear as a conflict rather than as an antagonism. This has therapeutic value for both the ‘Savage’ and the Settler: the mind can grasp the fight, conceptually put it into words. To say, ‘You stole my land and pilfered and appropriated my culture’ and then produce books, articles, and films that travel back and forth along the vectors of those conceptually coherent accusations is less threatening to the integrity of the ego, than to say, ‘You culled me down from 19 million to 250,000.’”[4]

This gesture towards conceptual coherence and therapeutic value is why there is a celebrated and ongoing association between “land” and “Native” in both non-Native argumentation and in arguments made by Native people. It is why we cannot theorize about Native debate absent the contingent register of sovereignty.

I am hesitant to claim that sovereignty should be completely abandoned as an analytic for obvious reasons—I think Wilderson also gives credit to indigenous conceptions of sovereignty, what it unseats, and how it operates, while still articulating a critique of sovereignty unrivaled by much of Native studies. I am not interested in suggesting that all Native people ignore our peoples’ land relationships or histories of broken treaties as politic throughout the United States or the world. I agree with Qwo-Li Driskill’s suggestion, alongside similar ones from other Native theorists, that sovereignty must be re-theorized significantly rather than echoing the propertied enterprise that confers legibility to state formations.

Regardless of my reluctance to disavow the potential for sovereignty as a politic outside debate rounds, I think it is obvious that sovereignty in its terms in debate—as a recognized and fundamentally “Native” utterance—is genocidal and anti-Black.

Broadly, my argument is that genocide is an undertheorized arm of an antagonism that halfway positions Native people, and that the basis of such undertheorization is the desire to be (mis)recognized as nearly-Human by the Settler. This claim invites an investigation of the context of (mis)recognition in debate and what is particular about debate itself with regard to Wilderson’s theory of position. Debate is inevitably a space of recognition, coherence, and transparency. It seeks to uncover, make clear, and expand consciousness more than it promises to occlude, hide, or make incoherent. This condition of debate is significant not because that makes it different from the rest of the academy, or the rest of civil society, but because it offers a specific situation from which to apply the critique of recognition.

In the age of academic identity politics, the identification of the self as a subject of trauma has emerged as the primary locus of (recognizable) enunciation. Many who are familiar with Eve Tuck’s work have read her critical analysis on the academy’s demand for damage-centered narratives and the kinds of traumatized neoliberal subjectivity they produce—as those who are continually indebted to a parasitic regime of recognition.

When this critique is applied in debate, it frequently targets identity-politics models of intervention in academia which posit the traumatized subject as a primary locus of critique. For example, many of the ableism debates I’ve judged contained arguments locked entirely in this register—where the traumatized subject is itself offered as a structural analytic in a manner that is always parasitic on Blackness. Teams who read arguments that they refer to as “disability pessimism” and describe disability as a form of “ontological death” often go on to claim that no change has come from reading critical arguments in debate and that we should be pessimistic about the ability for debate to become more inclusive of disabled people. This is, at best, an appropriation of Afropessimism based on a reductive reading of Black debate. Significantly, the misrecognition of Black debate that is rearticulated through “disability pessimism” also includes the secondary claim that critical argumentation has not produced shifts in the institutional schema of debate. But “disability pessimism” would not exist without Black debate. You can’t bite Afropessimism and then disavow the intellectual labor of Black people as the condition of possibility for your argument. Worse still, “things have never changed in debate for disabled people,” is not an advocacy. It is just a recognized enunciation of the trauma of degraded subjectivity.

In this example, the degraded subject masquerades trauma as analysis while occluding structural phenomena. They merely say, “The world is a horrible and traumatizing place for me, therefore listen to me reiterate my trauma.” And more often than not, as Eve Tuck writes, “All we are left with is the damage.”[5] These so-called interventions posited by identity politicians are ineffective in that they fail to provide a solution to a problem that they have misidentified because of their own egoistic (contingent) investments. In other words, identity politics doesn’t work because it is antiblack. Identity politics is only interested in iterating a degraded subject as fundamentally innocent of violence, ethical, and on the right side of history at all times, because of that person’s experience of a (contingent, as opposed to gratuitous) violence.

Identity politics that have pushed us all to identify ourselves based on our traumas accrue, for Native people, in intra-communal policing strategies that use trauma as a site of authenticity—and authenticity as a foundational, genocidal gloss for identification. In many ways, this conversation about position begs a question of indigenous authenticity in debate—who is and is not really Native is a question fraught with centuries of historical baggage. And it carries weight in debate because the epistemic terrain of “indigenous scholarship” or “Native thought” demands a conversation about embodiment and experience as instantiations of the ontological. For Native people, the debate around authenticity is structured by a debate about blood quantum—or more accurately, blood quantum is one of the many genocidal registers through which we can understand the subject/object formation of the Native. Genocide and sovereignty are the co-constitutive registers determining Native position as being in/out of the world in the first instance.

As Eve Tuck describes, those who are traumatized are seen as having truly lived. Trauma and authenticity slip between each other as discourses which authorize us to enunciate a “Native” experience, one that is apparently generalizable to experiences far beyond our own, and one that tends to be used in service of the land-based arguments about sovereignty that I have thoroughly critiqued above.

The competitive space of debate exacerbates such trends. The slippage between trauma and authenticity is so real for us (perhaps because of the depth of genocide as a specter and its haunting gratuitous continuance) that it has become an easy disciplinary mechanism for creating affective investments in white racial kinship. In other words, Native people are still relying on Settler/Master regimes of recognition that can confer validation for certain (coherent) traumas. So you have a few Native people who are already insecure about whether or not we are indigenous enough, who seek to prove our authenticity by articulating it in the terms of trauma. But, under the structure I’ve described above, such trauma can only authorize our authenticity insofar as it can be made coherent to white judges in order to receive their validation and value! For many non-Black Native people in debate, this apparently justifies the slippage away from Blackness and the prioritizing of antiblack racial anxieties over an actual conversation about ontology and modernity.

In other words, in an instance of identity politics, where trauma must be isolable, human, subjectified, and coherent in order to be validated as authenticity by the Settler/Master, sovereignty gets the job done in a way genocide does not. Again, it is the assumption that recognition by the Settler/Master is favorable, or even necessary, that motivates Native people’s investments in arguments about land, space, place, sovereignty, and treaties. It is also this assumption that facilitates the false move to authenticity (false in that it is only given coherence by a genocidal and antiblack apparatus of recognition). Native people have been (mis)recognized by the Settler/Master since Taino peoples were met with Columbus’ genocidal misrecognitions in 1492. Much of this (mis)recognition rests on the incoherence of genocide.

Genocide is not a name for violence in the way that ‘arson’ is; genocide is a linguistic placeholder connoting that violence which out-strips the power of connotation. To represent it we have to dismantle it, pretend that we can identify its component parts, force a name into its hole—macrocytes, spur cells, kidneys at half-throttle, a thoroughly ulcerated stomach, Wounded Knee, Sand Creek—and make it what it is not, the way one fills the tucked sleeve of a one-armed boy. But these fillers, these phantom limbs of connotation, can only be imagined separately, and as such they take on the ruse of items that science, love, aesthetics, or justice—some form of symbolic intervention—can attend to and set right. They become treatable, much like the massacre at Wounded Knee were it not for the fact that to comprehend Wounded Knee, three hundred-plus men, women, and children in a snow-filled ravine, one must comprehend those three hundred synchronically over three thousand miles (the forty-eight contiguous states) and diachronically over five hundred years. Here, madness sets in and the promises of symbolic intervention turn to dust. We are returned to the time and space of no time and space, the ‘terminal.’”[6]

The magnitude of this hole—the impossibility of representing or narrativizing how genocide as a modality continues to position not just Native peoples but the extent to which it is a structural principle of modernity itself—is not easy. It is certainly not as easy to articulate in a debate round as sovereign loss is, nor is it as easy for Settlers to hear.

In order to no longer occlude the emergence of Red/Black theorizing in debate, non-Black Native people in debate must begin speaking in the register of incoherence, which demands engaging conceptually and argumentatively with Black people in debate. The avoidance of such a conversation (or series of conversations) can only be rooted in antiblackness and will only reproduce antiblackness. While Native people can be recognized by the Settlers we are talking to in the register of sovereignty, structurally, Black people (including people who are Black and Native) have no such register at the level of ontology. “Whereas Humans exist on some plane of being and thus can become existentially present through some struggle for, of, or through recognition, Blacks cannot reach this plane.”[7]

The simultaneous coherence and incoherence of the “Savage” position has thus far led non-Black Native people collectively to invest ourselves in antiblack kinship relations in debate that refuse to speak to or with Black people except when using them as a scapegoat to gain recognition from the Settler/Master institution of debate. This is because, more often than not, non-Black Native debaters are only tasked with talking to Settlers. I don’t mean this in terms of whether we have white friends—I mean argumentatively and conceptually, our work is creating a Settler/Native binary that conspicuously erases and systematically under-theorizes Blackness, antiblackness, slavery/prison, and Black people. Too many non-Black Native debaters don’t even have an answer to the question of whether Black people are Settlers. That there are Native debaters who feel ambiguous about this question at all suggests the rootedness of Native debate in antiblackness.

It is beyond the scope of this letter to offer specific critiques of the myriad of (inadequate) ways that many non-Black Native scholars claim to “position” “Blackness,” but it is overwhelmingly true that their discussion of antiblackness consistently describes it as a system of racial identification subservient to settler colonialism. In debate, however, this neglects the indebtedness of non-Black Native debaters to the intellectual and argumentative labor of Black debaters, coaches, and judges. In other words, to reduce antiblackness in debate to a system of racial identification subsumed structurally by settler colonialism is ahistorical, given that it has been the work of Black people in debate that has made Native debate possible at all, as tenuous and numerically small as we are.

Why, then, are non-Black Native people in debate so invested in describing settler colonialism as the sole matrix of power under which violence operates? Much of this scholarship (Eve Tuck’s work, Jodie Byrd’s, and other similar texts from Native studies) critiques integrationist elements of Black studies as seeking inclusion in the national project—but Afropessimism broadly, and Wilderson’s work specifically, is far from integrationist. To my knowledge (which is extensive but obviously not exhaustive when it comes to Native debate), non-Black Native debaters have been largely unwilling to contend with the thesis of Wilderson’s book, even when reading other scholars who allege disagreement with him, as most of these scholars do, from the vantage point of sovereignty.

A coherent conversation with the Settler about sovereignty in debate is unlikely to challenge the (mis)recognition that leads to the high level of politicization around who is really Native and who is not. Similarly, the numeric lack of Native people in debate, as a function of genocide itself, makes it difficult to articulate what Native resistance has been, is going to be, or even what it is doing right now. Rather than an aspirational politic that suggests we should culturally infuse debate with indigeneity (the implicit endpoint of many of these conversations about “decolonization” which are ultimately revivalist and inclusionist attempts related to Native spiritual or cultural practices), there is an (under-theorized) incoherence to our position that I believe should motivate us to enter into the fraught terrain of Red/Black theorizing. Nothing Native is happening in debate—not that there are not Native people in debate, but I do not believe debate is a space that we should aspire to “indigenize,” “decolonize,” or anything in that register.

In debate, Native people are misrecognized, whether through technologies of capture like blood quantum mythologies, misreadings of indigenous cosmologies, or genocidal imaginations of Noble Savages. Fuck non-Black non-Native people who are structurally responsible for those misrecognitions. To the degree that recognition is inevitable in debate, I think many of us are pushed by our coaches, debate partners, by those who judge us, and by civil society more broadly, to articulate ourselves within those frames in order to authenticate ourselves. This is my analysis of trauma politics above. How does the register of authenticity change when we are talking to someone other than the Settler/Master and their junior partners? I believe it changes significantly. I believe that for Native debate to a) increase meaningful Native participation in debate,[8] b) attend to the irreconcilable genocidal question that for us always undergirds sovereignty but can never be coherent in the way that sovereignty and land loss can, and c) attend to social death and the non-position of the Black, it is imperative that we stop talking to and for white people argumentatively.

(Mis)recognition is inevitable in a communicative and performative space like debate. Therefore, we have to make decisions about whose recognitions we will orient ourselves towards, how we want to be recognized, and by whom. Structurally, non-Black Native people have not been talking to Black people because many of us refuse to be authorized by the ethical dilemmas of accumulation and fungibility that attend Blackness.[9]

There are, for example, many non-Black Native people who express ressentiment about Black debate—that Black debate has not made space for Native debate, as if that was the obligation of Black debaters and coaches, or as if Black debate by virtue of its very existence has not made space for Native debate, or as if Settler/Master debate does not owe argumentative space to Native people. It is disturbing that non-Black Native people tend to express major grievances with Black debate, or with Resistance or Wilderson or Afropessimism (all coded as Black debate), rather than with Settler/Master debate, including the debaters, coaches, judges, and practices that attend to its institutional form.

Further, it is clear from the argumentative content of much of Native debate— not merely the systematic absencing and/or undertheorizing of Black people from those theoretical angles, which itself should disprove them, but also the primary focus being sovereign restoration, treaty reconciliation, or the return of indigenous lands (usually meaning all of Turtle Island)—that antiblackness is endemic to its ongoing function. That so many people reading arguments about treaty rights, land repatriation, or decolonization have not found an answer to the question “What happens to Black people when the land is returned?” is very telling about the anti-Black investments that attend enunciations of sovereignty in debate. That there are Native people in debate who continue to insist that Black people are positioned as Settlers when all evidence points to the contrary (though this is not to suggest that individual Black people cannot invest themselves in settlerist nation-building projects), is antiblack and inadequate scholarship that cannot forefront a theory of position.

[1] In many ways, “Native debate” is a misnomer in that it implies an institutionalization that does not exist for Native people. Due both to our numerical smallness and the lack of collective organization or community amongst Native people in debate, it is hard to theorize about what “Native debate” is or what we are doing. As I argue here, “Native debate” invariably invokes land-based politics, and it is so wholly (mis)recognized as such that debaters who are both Black and Native are frequently denied access to their own Nativeness at all. Thus the lines that contour to form our (generally false) conceptions of “Native debate” as that which Native people are doing in debate are obviously antiblack in that they preclude consideration of the scholarly and interpersonal contributions of those who are both Black and Native as not Native enough, presumably because they are not attendant to the land or not attendant to the land in the same ways that non-Black Native people’s work is homogenously understood to be.

[2] Tiffany King argues compellingly in her dissertation In the Clearing: Black Female Bodies, Space, and Settler Colonial Landscapes that the clearing as the site of genocidal Settler production is also the site of the antiblack violence of the Master. In other words, the settlement is also a plantation and the plantation is also a settlement. In other other words, debate is a site of anti-Native genocide, as much as it is a site of antiblack social death, as much as it is a site of Settler/Master subject-making.

[3] There are clearly significant differences between Native people’s arguments in favor of sovereignty and those of Settlers. But the Native debaters who claim to solve sovereignty or material decolonization are also often misrepresenting and misrecognizing the history of struggle for sovereignty or treaty rights within our various nations. It is, in fact, the similarity in these misrepresentations and misrecognitions between Settlers and Native people that is disturbing to me here, and worthy of theorizing.

[4] Frank Wilderson, Red White and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, 152.

[5] Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang, R-Words: Refusing Research, 226.

[6] Wilderson, Red White and Black, 195.

[7] Wilderson, Red White and Black, 38.

[8] Thank you to Louisville and the ongoing legacy of Black debate for offering the terms for this political conceptualization and goal.

[9] Wilderson, Red White and Black, 241.

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