Cultural critic Greil Marcus, in his book The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, writes, “America is a place and a story, made up of exuberance and suspicion, crime and liberation, lynch mobs and escapes” (6). In his contrapuntal recitation, Marcus provides a necessary corrective to blithe professions of American exceptionalism. Yet it is still incomplete. For Native Americans, Marcus could have added that the United States is also a place of genocide and survivance.
The concept of survivance belongs to Native scholar and author Gerald Vizenor. In a career now entering its seventh decade, he has been both prolific and protean. He is the author of more than thirty books as a novelist, poet, essayist, short story writer, and scholar. He is one of the United States’ foremost authors of haiku and one of Native America’s foremost scholars and practitioners of postmodernism and critical theory.
Survivance is one of a long list of what Kimberly Blaeser labels “Vizenorese,” an ever-lengthening list of terms and neologisms Vizenor deploys in his work. Of these, survivance is arguably the most important, the most widely used by others, and the most misunderstood. The word is not actually of his coining at all but an existing one that he repurposed.
Originally, the term “survivance” was a legal term relating to inheritance. In a letter to Hester Thrale, Samuel Johnson refers to his “uncertain confidence of survivance” (Survivance, 147). By the twentieth century that usage had dropped away and is today an archaism. In French, it today carries the meaning of a vestige. It was in this sense that Jacques Derrida employed it when speaking about the French Communist Party (PCF) in 2002. He termed the PCF as dying, noting, however, that it might have “a ‘survivance’ that may of course turn out to have a long life” (Survivance, 20). For Quebecois, la survivance remains a vital political concept, representing the obdurate perdurance of the French language and culture in the face of Canadian anglophone dominance.
In her book, Gerald Vizenor: Writing in the Oral Tradition, Blaeser writes, “Again and again, Vizenor upholds the same basic keys to survival: balance, humor, imaginative liberation, connection, continuance—and story” (71). For Vizenor, though, survivance extends well beyond simple survival. He began using, defining, and refining the term in the early 1990s. Its earliest use is in the 1993 article, “The Ruins of Representation: Shadow Survivance and the Literature of Dominance,” but he does not elaborate on the concept there. In his 1998 book, Fugitive Poses, he writes that he uses words in “historical dictionaries” but “with new connotations.” He elaborates, “For instance, survivance, in the sense of native survivance, is more than survival, more than endurance or mere response; the stories are active presence” (15). Native survivance, in Vizenor’s parlance, is a combination of the words “survival” and “resistance,” and it “creates a sense of presence.” According to him, “The suffix -ance designates a condition, a nature, or a quality that is more than a mere description of survival” (15).
The stories are active presence. Both sovereignty and democracy are stories. They are lived faith statements. They are also interconnected. The story of democracy needs the story of Indigenous sovereignty and Indigenous survivance. At this time when our polity seems riven as at no time since the years prior to the American Civil War, many are nostalgic for a time when the nation was more united. Such a vision is a chimera. The United States was born in rebellion and has been a contested story ever since. From its inception, large segments of the population – women, African Americans, Indigenous peoples – were excluded from its promise. Many still are. And there has never been an agreed-upon narrative. Even in times of apparent unity, there have been strong currents of dissent.
Following the establishment of the United States, from its earliest moments, political theorists began to speculate about whether homogeneity was not a prerequisite to the survival and success of democratic institutions. Writing about his experiences of the new American Republic in the early 1830s, in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote:
If a confederation is to endure for long, a homogeneity of civilization is no less necessary than a homogeneity of needs among its member nations. The civilization of the canton of Vaud is to the civilization of the canton of Uri as the nineteenth century is to the fifteenth: hence Switzerland has never really had a federal government. Only on the map do its various canons constitute a union, as would become apparent if a central authority ever attempted to apply a uniform set of laws throughout its territory.Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America 190
After ruminating about Switzerland and Europe, he turns to the United States:
One fact about the United States admirably facilitates the existence of a federal government. Not only do the various states share almost the same interests, origin, and language, but they are also civilized to the same degree, so that it is usually easy for them to come to agreement. I doubt that there is any nation in Europe, however small, whose various parts are not less homogenous than the people of America, who occupy a territory at least half the size of Europe.Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America 190
A century later, pioneering Oklahoma historian Joseph Thoburn coauthored Oklahoma: A History of the State and Its People with Choctaw Nation citizen Muriel Wright. In it, they state:
The question as to the possibility of the permanent endurance of a democracy, or representative republic, the constituent citizenship of which are not of a homogenous character, is one of grave doubt. In any attempt to find its solution, due regard must be paid to underlying principles; racial integrity is the greatest issue involved and this, with the adaptability or lack of the same on the part of a questionable element, must eventually outweigh prejudice, sentimentality and even artificially created rights.Joseph Thoburn and Muriel Wright, Oklahoma: A History of the State and Its People 2:656
Perhaps the best-known theorist espousing homogeneity as a prerequisite to democracy was Carl Schmitt, the father of political theology. In his book, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, he declares, “Every actual democracy rests on the principle that not only are equals equal but unequals will not be treated equally. Democracy requires, therefore, first homogeneity and second – if the need arises – elimination or eradication of heterogeneneity” (9). For him, democratic politics inevitably devolves into an “us” versus “them.”
The analyses of each of these thinkers, while subject to debate, is flawed. De Toqueville’s observations miss, among other blind spots, the deep divisions between North and South, evident even in the 1830s, that belie his “homogeneity of needs.” Thoburn and Wright use their discussion to justify Jim Crow laws. Schmitt was a committed Nazi. Nonetheless, the question they raise persists. In their book, A Nation So Conceived, Reinhold Niebuhr and historian Alan Heimert question the “common inclination of the whole European democratic world to regard democratic self-government as a simple option for all peoples and all cultures, whether primitive or traditional, without calculating in what degree they have acquired the skills, which have put political freedom in the service of justice in the West; or whether they possess the elementary preconditions of community, the cohesion of a common language and race” that make democracy possible (149).
With the emergence of rabidly populist MAGA politics and partisan gridlock in Washington, one might be forgiven for wanting to agree with de Tocqueville and Schmitt. Too often today it seems as though the United States has become a zero-sum game. Yet despite these failings and many more besides, the American experiment has long served as a challenge to such notions. In spite of ethnic strife and the rise of separatism around the globe, there is a growing body of evidence and scholarship that heterogeneity, not sameness, is requisite for a thriving democracy.
There are two main theoretical approaches to liberal democracy: the aggregative model and the deliberative model. The aggregative sees actors as motivated by pursuit of self-interest, whereas the deliberative stresses reason and moral considerations. These approaches, advocated by theorists like Jurgen Habermas and John Rawls, emphasize consensus. According to Chantal Mouffe, however, “What both of these models leave aside is the centrality of collective identities and the crucial role played by affects in their constitution” (6). Mouffe believes it is impossible to understand democratic politics without acknowledging the central role played by passions.
Mouffe, whose home country of Belgium perpetually teeters on the brink of dissolution as divisions between the Flemish and Walloons threaten to spin apart as though by centrifugal force, offers a different way to conceptualize living in a heterogeneous society. Her agonism, or as she calls it, “agonistic pluralism,” acknowledges the creative potential of certain tensions and conflicts. She terms it “conflictual consensus” and writes:
By making [the] distinction between antagonism [Schmitt] proper and agonism, I am able, while asserting the ineradicability of antagonism, to envision how this should not automatically lead to a negation of a pluralist democratic order. In fact, I go even further; I assert not only that the agonistic struggle is compatible with democracy, but that such a struggle is precisely what constitutes the specificity of pluralist democratic politics. And this is why I present the agonistic model of democracy as an alternative to the aggregative and deliberative models. In my view, the advantage of such a model is that by recognizing the role of passions in the creation of collective identities, it provides a better understanding of the dynamics of democratic politics, one that acknowledges the need for offering different forms of collective identification around clearly defined alternatives.Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics 139
Unlike Niebuhr and Heimert, who search non-Western cultures for the prerequisites of Western democracy, Mouffe states:
I do not believe in the existence of one single form of democracy that would provide the only legitimate, universal answer. There are many ways in which the democratic idea can be implemented according to different contexts. For those of us who live in Europe, the starting point cannot be the same as for those who live in other parts of the world. It is not by pretending to offer global solutions, but by addressing the problems facing our societies that we can contribute to the general struggle for democracy.Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics 145
Like survivance, sovereignty is a story, a lived story. It is often made up of little things like license plates and tax forms, citizenship cards and hunting licenses. Citizens of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy travel on their own passports. As the late John Mohawk (Seneca) declared, “If you want to be sovereign, you have to act sovereign.” The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is a story of survivance. It is also a case study in Mouffe’s agonistic pluralism.
In ancient times, the five nations south of the Great Lakes were in a state of constant warfare with one another, in an endless cycle of violence. One Huron man foresaw that it would end with their extinction. He was a historical figure, around whom has accreted layers of legend. His name is considered sacred and can only be used in connection with his teachings. Most often he is referred to as The Great Peacemaker.
The Peacemaker had a vision of a cessation of hostilities among the five nations. This was to be accomplished by the creation among them of an alliance, a confederation. Together with Hiawatha and a woman named Jigonsaseh, the Peacemaker began to preach his vision of peace and confederacy. Gradually, they overcame the resistance of the tribal nations. It was an arduous process. Four of the tribes at last agreed, but the Onondaga continued to resist. The other tribes conditioned their acceptance on the approval of the Onondaga.
Ultimately, the Onondaga agreed, and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of the Five Nations was forged. (After the end of the Tuscarora War in 1715, Tuscaroras fled the Carolinas and joined their northern brethren, eventually becoming the sixth nation of the confederacy.) Though various dates have been advanced for the date of the formation, a totality of the evidence suggests a date of 1142 C.E., a date accepted by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy itself. It thus becomes, with Iceland, one of the two oldest representative democracies in the world.
The American Revolution tested and tore apart the confederacy, already tested by the Seven Years War. Though they attempted to maintain their neutrality, they were eventually drawn into the conflict. The Oneida and Tuscarora were pro-colonist, while the other four nations supported the British. They had pre-existing treaty relations with Great Britain, what they called the Covenant Chain. Living up to these obligations was seen as polishing or burnishing the Chain. After the Revolution, Haudenosaunees who supported the British relocated to Canada.
The Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy survived and continued their resistance. During the Great War, Haudenosaunee in the United States were exempt from the draft as non-citizens. The Oneida and the Onondaga separately declared war on Germany, the latter because of the ill-treatment of its citizens stranded in Berlin at the onset of hostilities. Following the war, Great Britain transferred responsibility for foreign affairs to Canada. When Canada tried to suppress Haudenosaunee government, the Confederacy sought in vain to gain recognition by the League of Nations. In 1924, the United States unilaterally made all Native Americans who not already citizens, citizens. Upon U.S. entry into World War II, it attempted to conscript Iroquois. The Haudenosaunee objected to the draft as a violation of its sovereignty. The impasse was resolved when, on June 13, 1942, the Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy formally declared war on the Axis Powers.
Sociologist John Brown Childs sees in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy a model for what he calls “transcommunality.” He writes that
around the world many are poised on the edge of an important development within which is emerging a twenty-first century mode of organizing for justice and dignity that I call transcommunality. By transcommunality I mean the constructive and developmental interaction occurring among distinct autonomy-oriented communities and organizations, each with its own particular history, outlook, and agenda. This interaction, developed through interpersonal relations of people engaged in common tasks, is producing working groups of activists whose roots are in communities and organizations, but who also form bridges among diverse peoples as they address substantial, albeit often varied corrosive dilemmas–from economic crisis to environmental degradation, from Indigenous land rights to the organizing of workers across national borders. It is to the facilitation of transcommunal cooperation…John Brown Childs, Transcommunality 10-11
Though written in 2003, Childs seems as romantically naïve as Charles Reich, who in his 1970 bestseller, The Greening of America, proclaimed that the world was on the verge of a fundamental social shift to what he called “Consciousness III,” marked by personal freedom and egalitarianism.
Native Americans have always been viewed through the Mirror of Galadriel, which shows the viewer what he or she most desires to see. For some, they are the first ecologists, for others Spartan-like warrior societies. For others they are radically egalitarian cultures, in which there were no gender roles and gender-fluidity was welcomed, even celebrated.
This is nowhere more true than it is of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. For some, it is the historical model for American democracy. In it, Lewis Henry Morgan, Karl Marx, and Fredrich Engels saw primitive communism. For Childs, it is the embodiment of transcommunality.
In his book, Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance, Vizenor writes, “Survivance is an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name” (1). He concludes, “Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy, and victimry. Survivance means the right of succession or reversion of an estate, and in that sense, the estate of native survivancy” (vii).
Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (New York: Verso, 2013).
This is Mouffe’s best explication of her concept of agonistic pluralism as a way of theorizing democratic politics.
Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
Written during the early Weimar Republic, this book develops Schmitt’s concept of sovereignty.
Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance (Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1994).
This represents Vizenor’s first fulsome explanation of his concept of “survivance.”
Gerald Vizenor, ed., Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).
This edited collection brings together eighteen essays by scholars of Native American literature, both Native and non-Native, discussing survivance.