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Refusal is a strong current resisting the structure of settler colonialism. It crashes, churns, and erodes the death-dealing dams of settler knowing. Its path turns away from the settler’s gaze.

What does it mean to refuse? Three Indigenous feminist scholars, Audra Simpson, Stephanie Noelani Teves, and Cutcha Risling Baldy, use “refuse” in diverse yet similar ways that can help us answer that question. Together, these critical theorists illustrate refusal as a multivalent antithetical force, which dialectically pushes back against the ongoing structure of settler colonialism. In political theology, refusal makes apparent the oft-obscure underlying political realities of settler colonialism within religious ideologies and institutions. Yet each theorist’s articulations of refusal also explicate a power that promotes life beyond mere antithesis to a genocidal thesis. Refusal transcends eventual dialectical synthesis. Reading Simpson, Teves, and Risling Baldy in concert, refusal manifests as both Indigenous survivance and Indigenous futurity – the styles, practices and logics for thinking about Indigenous futures. For alongside its rejection of settler-colonial power, refusal simultaneously creates and sustains space for ongoing multi-generational life. As such a force, refusal describes both resistance and a life-force analogous to Anishinaabe legal scholar John Borrows’ description of the Anishinaabe legal value zaagi’idiwin (love). Reading Borrows alongside Simpson, Teves, and Risling Baldy interlaces zaagi’idiwin with refusal’s articulated resistance to the colonizer with a simultaneous articulated love to the Indigenous community – a love manifested in ongoing, multi-generational Indigenous life.

Refusal as Sovereignty

In Mohawk Interruptus, Audra Simpson articulates refusal as both sovereign strategy and anthropological method. Her community of Kahnawá:ke traverses the contemporary boundaries of the United States and Canada. Simpson’s work is foundational in subsequent scholarly articulations of refusal, and her own refusal in her ethnographic work emerges from her experience of the ongoing interpolation of settler colonialism on the Mohawks of Kahnawá:ke in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Questions of citizenship and membership arise repeatedly in interactions with international border patrol agents when Kahnawa’kehró:non cross international lines. Indeed, continuous political interference by settler nation-states (such as the ongoing effects of the 1876 Canadian Indian Act) result in contentious and conflictive determinations of Kahnawá:ke membership and broader Canadian/U.S. citizenship; Simpson calls these political struggles “predicaments.”

In ethnographic interviews, Simpson’s research partners utilize refusal by playing ignorant. Simpson’s work then takes up this refusal and pushes it to the level of anthropological method. In lieu of an ethnographically thick description of who holds Kahnawá:ke membership and why, Simpson discusses the necessity of unknowing as itself methodological. Regardless of who leverages refusal in Simpson’s work, here, it inculcates opacity. It is a strategy which acts as an epistemological barrier for the people of Kahnawá:ke, protecting them from the academic gaze and the ongoing project of settlement that gaze informs. When asked who is a member, Simpson’s interviewees respond with articulations of ignorance, such as “no one seems to know anything about it.” Who belongs and how constitutes the fundamental question of a settler state ceaselessly looking for more land to grab.

Indigenous communities impacted by the ongoing 500 years of the settler-colonial project also grapple with these questions. Assumed ignorance in ethnographic interviews allows various complexities and contestations of Kahnawá:ke reality to persist in some protected form. Here, refusal is sovereignty. It undermines the epistemological project seeking to delegitimize Indigenous philosophical systems, societies, and nations. It flips the gaze and calls the legitimacy of the questioner into account. As Simpson asks, what gives the anthropologist—or anyone acting within ongoing settler-colonial structures—the right to “know” and then politically interfere? Yet still the gaze persists, knowledge accrues, and land is stolen. In political theology, sovereignty remains a central concern. Refusal, for Simpson, underscores what she calls “nested sovereignties,” political realities beyond the settler-colonial imaginary where “Indigenous political orders prevail within and apart from settler governance” (Simpson, 2014, 11). Refusal-as-sovereignty pushes back against the epistemological political gaze of the Canadian and U.S. governments. What might this understanding of refusal offer political theologians thinking through notions of sovereignty?

Refusal as Performance

Kanaka Maoli scholar Stephanie Noelani Teves unpacks refusal in a way that is both unique to her context and resonant with Simpson’s commitments. Teves’ Defiant Indigeneity illustrates refusal through the lens of various Kānaka Maoli performances. Whereas Simpson’s experience and use of refusal centers around literal information on community affiliation (e.g. membership lists), Teves’ refusal centers on performance, specifically the performance of aloha. For many Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiians, aloha is both “a deep, abiding kinship” of reciprocal care and the work required to constitute community, but it is also a capitalist concept that the settler-colonial tourism state has simplified and commodified. Aloha is dashboard hula dancers, the giving of leis, and smiles that funnel into the systemic erasure of Kanaka Maoli via blood quantum and the dampening of Indigenous dissent. It is also, Teves states, “what makes us Hawaiian.”

Hawaiian performance, Teves notes, is the site of knowledge, sight, and discipline – both via state apparatuses and via Kanaka Maoli intersubjectivity. The gaze—external and internalized—capitulates and co-creates the Kanaka Maoli self into an expected ethnographically performative thickness lacking surprise, agency, and threat to the structures of settler colonialism. The Aloha State and the Aloha Spirit Law encapsulate this limitation. Against this backdrop, Teves situates the performative refusal of drag queen Cocoa Chandelier, whose performances the Hawaiian tourist imaginary will not recognize as anything related to Kanaka Maoli indigeneity. She does not perform the expected aloha. Chandelier’s refusal of aloha via drag thus acts in a similar ethnographic manner to the Kahnawa’kehró:non refusal in Simpson’s work. As Teves describes one such performance: “at each opportunity to perform something “Hawaiian” she refused, until she finally did a Samoan dance when urged” (Teves, 2018, 96). Chandelier undermines the performance of aloha and subverts the settler’s gaze via non-response to settler-colonial expectations. She does not meet the settler-colonial need for ethnographic thickness of “Hawaiian culture.”

Teves’ exploration of refusal highlights the reality that—though the contexts of the Mohawk and Kanaka Maoli are distinct (the academic settler versus the tourist settler)—both communities wrestle with the settler-colonial gaze that requires specific performances in capitalistic exchanges for resources. The Kahnawá:ke reservation is not a tourist destination. Yet, in order for the Kahnawa’kehró:non to live their life in uninterrupted ways across the boundaries of two nation-states, they must also perform their Indigeneity in ways the settler gaze expects. Simpson’s refusals during her various border crossings speak against this demand.

The resistance each theorist underscores in the use of refusal operates only at the level of the settler-colonial imaginary. For just as with the Kahnawa’kehró:non, Kanaka Maoli know both what is being refused and the Indigeneity that is being performed. Simpson expresses the humor of being told that no one knows about the membership lists when she herself knows that everyone does. Teves describes aloha in drag as a technique that both promotes and obscures various elements of Hawaiian indigeneity. The Kanaka Maoli and/or local audience members are the only ones capable of recognizing this. Thus, Chandelier’s performance, with its apparent lack of anything resembling aloha, provides for the ongoing life of the Kanaka Maoli community. Both theorists highlight the resistance in refusal. Refusal’s opacity slips into drag – into a resistant performativity that remains recognizable and life-giving to insiders.

Refusal as Revitalization

In Hupa, Yurok, and Karuk scholar Cutcha Risling Baldy’s We Are Dancing for You, refusal emphasizes resistance and life via non-linear notions of community.Her work describes how Hupaancestorsin the nineteenth and twentieth centuries practiced deliberate specificity in ethnographic cooperation. They strategically determined what and what not to share with California’s anthropologists, with an eye toward the needs of future generations of the Na:tinixwe. Specifically, Hupa informers insisted that white ethnographers document their young women’s coming-of-age ceremonies. These ceremonies were abandoned out of necessity as the genocidal push to annihilate California’s Indigenous populations focused its most concerted efforts on the rape, enslavement, and murder of women. Hupa people could not gather to celebrate the coming of age of their young women, because those gatherings became magnets for forty-niner violence. Yet, the anthropological records from the time go into great detail about menstruation ceremonies – details, Risling Baldy explains, that would have been extremely distasteful to the white male anthropologists recording them. Hupa refusal thus encompasses both resistance and an insistence on “documenting these ceremonies because they were leaving a record for future Native peoples to utilize, reclaim, and (re)write, (re)right, and (re)rite” (78).

Here, refusal involves not only a lack of epistemological cooperation, à la Simpson and Teves, but also survivance and leveraging academic ethnography for Hupa futurity. Hupa ancestors recognized ethnographers’ thirst for knowledge. They knew that this knowledge would form a historical record within the settler-colonial system that was decimating their community. From silence to verbosity, encompassing lacuna and continuity, Hupa refusal embodies a spectrum of communication and activity. The lacuna of refusal coupled with verbosity pushes the historical record of genocidal settlers to unknowingly provide for Hupa continuity and futurity. The Hupa use of refusal as both the absence and abundance of knowledge underscores the fundamentality of refusal as both Indigenous survivance and futurity. Risling Baldy’s historical work also shows how refusal traverses both the historical and the contemporary, connecting generations past with today’s generation, and the generations to come. In this way, Hupa refusal illustrates Mark Rifkin’s “prophetic temporality.”

For all three theorists, refusal is a decolonial strategy. It averts the rapacious gaze of an insatiable settler-colonial desire for Indigenous land. As each author indicates, this gaze maintains tentacled political structures via the ongoing contraction and assimilation of Indigenous life and philosophies. Simpson and Risling Baldy highlight the academy, specifically the discipline of anthropology. Teves emphasizes the tourist industry. In each theoretical work, refusal arises as a negation against ongoing settler colonialism as continuously perpetuated by the states of Hawaii and California, and the nation-states of Canada and the United States. Tourism, the academy, international sports, and dancing competitions – all of these spaces are invaded by the arms of settler-colonial structure. Refusal acts as a moment of antithesis to and slipping away from this grasp for land and life.

Simultaneously, refusal focuses the gaze of the speaker (the one refusing) onto the community. In this surreptitious gazing (the refused settler looks elsewhere while unbeknownst to them, the speaker looks at the community), a clearing for Indigenous life opens. It is in this clearing that John Borrows’ exploration of zaagi’idiwin provides a fruitful analogue.

Refusal as Love

In John Borrows’ book, Law’s Indigenous Ethics, he cites zaagi’idiwin as a value in Anishinaabe law. Like all legal systems, Anishinaabe law draws upon a variety of sources, and Borrows’ work highlights the seven Grandmother/Grandfather teachings in particular. He foregrounds the teaching of zaagi’idiwin (love) specifically in its foundation in the land. The land provides both sources of law and stories for teaching about legal values. Rivers specifically provide analogies and stories that teach the Anishinaabe how to love and extend that love to others. Globally, rivers often act as political boundaries, rather than simply natural entities. But in Indigenous notions of nationhood, political boundaries are more than mere geographical features. As Michi Saagiig Nishnaabe author Leanne Betasamosake Simpson states in her essay, “The Place Where We All Live and Work Together,” Indigenous national borders are “areas of increased diplomacy, ceremony, and sharing…the focus is on our joint responsibilities for caretaking of the land and ensuring that coming generations inherit healthy and clean lands so that life, all life, may perpetuate itself” (19). What Leanne Simpson’s work indicates is that even when understood politically, rivers are sites of ongoing cross-boundary care, and sources of communal life. Might Borrows’ work, combining law and cosmology via story, model political theologies that start from the land and remain attendant to the structure of settler colonialism? Certainly, unpacking the river-as-love metaphor in concert with refusal helps make plain the life-clearing possibilities that Indigenous refusal opens.

In describing zaagi’idiwin as a river, Borrows states that it will “continually flow to sustain those around us.” With strong currents, zaagi’idiwin-as-river “lays down layers of nourishment” and provides a course for life to travel through and sustain others. He continues, “love is about the free flow of support to others, which should be strongest where it meets others. It allows us to fortify those who gather around us.” Like a river, zaagi’idiwin is continuous sustenance and gentle nourishment. It bolsters and reinforces the community. Yet, Borrows also underscores zaagi’idiwin as precious. It embodies “a kind of exclusivity, even stinginess, which signifies that love must not be dissipated” (39). In this register, zaagi’idiwin-as-river offers a type of protection – a protection from “alienation and diminishment” on Canadian Anishinaabe reserves (the brothers to U.S. reservations). How does refusal act in ways similar to zaagi’idiwin-as-river?

Refusal is a strong current resisting the structure of settler colonialism. It crashes, churns, and erodes the death-dealing dams of settler knowing. Its path turns away from the settler’s gaze. This erosion—this space of non-knowing—allows for the laying down of nourishment for the Kanaka Maoli, the Hupa, the Kahnawa’kehró:non. It becomes a conduit for strengthening and fortifying one’s community. Refusal acts as an instantiation of the precious, exclusive love that Borrows articulates. It refuses to authorize the dissipation and violence of colonizer cultural and racial inclusivity, instead focusing its life-giving force back onto communal sovereignty. Refusal leans away from all that would place it under a microscope (and then confine its life to the space of a petri dish), into a spacious opening-up away from the violence of knowledge and into the flow of nourishment, sovereignty, and decolonial life. Refusal strengthens one’s kin beyond linear notions of time and dematerialized notions of place. It provides multi-generational nourishment for Indigenous communities grappling and turning away from the structure of settler-colonialism.

Annotated Bibliography

Borrows, John. Law’s Indigenous Ethics. Toronto ; Buffalo ; London: University of Toronto Press, 2019.

Borrows uses Anishinaabe stories and methods in conversation with philosophy, law, and political science to explore the interactions of Anishinaabee and Canadian law. The book pushes for a general enrichment of Canadian constitutional law.

Risling Baldy, Cutcha. We Are Dancing for You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women’s Coming-Of-Age Ceremonies. 1st edition. Indigenous Confluences. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018.

Risling Baldy provides an account of the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s revitalization of the Flower Dance, using elder memoirs, museum archives, anthropological records and oral histories. Native feminisms provide the framework for the dance’s revitalization, which offers an example of wider Indigenous decolonizing praxis.

Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Duke University Press, 2014.

Simpson combines political theory with ethnographic research to examine the struggles of the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke to articulate and maintain political sovereignty. The book explores an Indigenous politics of refusal pushing against liberal politics of recognition.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. “The Place Where We All Live and Work Together.” In Native Studies Keywords, edited by Stephanie N Teves, Andrea Smith, and Michelle H Raheja. University of Arizona Press, 2015.

This edited volume explores concepts from Native studies that have often been presumed, rather than articulated and debated. Simpson’s essay provides an exploration of the term ‘sovereignty’ through an Anishinaabe lens.

Teves, Stephanie N. Defiant Indigeneity: The Politics of Hawaiian Performance. Critical Indigeneities. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

Via ethnographic research into various performances of “Hawaianness,” Teves illustrates how misunderstandings and appropriations of the philosophical concept of “aloha” have not prevented Kanaka Maoli from empowering and creating their own community. She situates Indigenous performance as decolonial, pushing back against the commodification of Indigeneity.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 2006): 387–409.

Wolfe explores the relationship between genocide and settler colonialism’s logic of elimination. He emphasizes that though the logics of elimination can manifest in settler colonialism as genocide, these concepts are not collapsible. Instead, he argues for an understanding of settler-colonialism as structure, instead of as event (genocidal or otherwise).


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Black Reason

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