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Public Writing, Sovereign Reading: Indigenous Language Art in Public Space

Sovereignty is not a thing, but an action; it is a form of doing. An increasing amount of writing by Indigenous artists, curators, and scholars over the past twenty years has addressed how Indigenous art and cultural practices do the work of sovereignty through various assertions and affirmations of law—visual, aural, kinetic, or a combination of these. Here we can include Jolene Rickard‘s foundational writing on visual sovereignty and Michelle Raheja‘s examination of visual sovereignty in film, Robert Warrior‘s examination of intellectual sovereignty, Beverly Singer’s description of cultural sovereignty, and Mique’l Dangeli’s scholarship on dancing sovereignty. See Michelle H. Raheja, Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010); and Mique’l Dangeli, Dancing Sovereignty: Protocol and Politics in Northwest Coast First Nations Dance (diss., University of British Columbia, 2015). While much of this writing has located sovereignty within specific works (visual art, film, writing, dance), each writer also emphasizes the processual and relational aspects of creation and production over a static sense of objecthood. For excellent overviews of work on the relationship between sovereignty and the arts, see Jolene Rickard, “Visual Sovereignty in the Time of Biometric Sensors,” South Atlantic Quarterly 110, no. 2 (2011): 465–86; and Michelle H. Raheja, “Visual Sovereignty,” in Native Studies Keywords, ed. Stephanie Nohelani Teves, Andrea Smith, and Raheja (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2015).

It is asserted in everyday ways through the use of our voices, rhetoric, and gestures that affirm belonging, and disavow the rights of others. Negotiations with sovereignty take place through our daily encounter with traffic signs, walls, gates, and the infrastructure of the city itself. Civic infrastructure asserts the nation state’s sovereign will on Indigenous territories, maximizing the smooth passage of certain individuals across Indigenous lands and waterways, while halting the attempts of other individuals to cross their own lands divided by fences and walls. The sovereignty of civic infrastructure is asserted materially, visually, and aurally. It is also engaged perceptually. As you read the signs “no trespassing,” or “beware dog,” your eyes, governed by sovereign sight, may take heed of these words written in English, according to state-sanctioned values of sovereignty. Your vision accepts the fences that demarcate private property even when such property exists on unceded Indigenous lands. Or yet perhaps your eyes are instead guided by Cree, Anishinaabe, Musqueam, Metis, two-spirit (and other multiply permutational) cultural values; you have learned to assert perceptual sovereignty against civic infrastructure’s colonial “lang-scape.” (Read More)