Territorial Contentions

“Space” is created out of the vast intricacies, the incredible complexities, of the interlocking and the non-interlocking, and the networks of relations at every scale from local to global. What makes a particular view of these social relations specifically spatial is their simultaneity.

It is a simultaneity, also, which has extension and configuration.

—Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender

The standard claim is that “territory” is formed from the Latin “terra,” meaning “land or terrain.” The land or the earth sustains and nourishes the people, and even, in some founding myths, gave birth to them. . . . But the actual term from which territory is derived is the Latin “territorium.” The provenance and meaning of this word itself is disputed. . . . The original form [territorium] has suggested derivation from terrere to frighten. . . . Using this logic, “territorium” would be a place from which people are frightened, or where terror is exercised.

—Stuart Elden, Terror and Territory

The interlocking quality of space, with the constellations of relations Massey points out, is not apparent at the outset of the movie. The river is pure flatness. There is, moreover, an uncanny continuity between the empty, frozen landscape and Ray’s visibly aged body, completely isolated from any semblance of social texture, smoking in her car outside her run-down trailer in the early morning before her two sons, T. J. and Ricky, wake up. The rituals of domesticity within its four walls have been thinned out to mere survival, as the recurrent meals of popcorn and Tang suggest. The trailer, contrary to Bachelard’s ([1958] 1994, 6) description, hardly performs the role of sheltering the dreamer. Abandoned by Troy, her husband, after he gambled away the family savings, Ray struggles to keep her family together in the midst of an accelerated process of disintegration. The dream home the family had been saving for, a double-wide trailer, seems further and further away now that she only has her part-time job at Yankee Dollar to rely on, and she does not have the cash to pay for the balloon payment on a new, double-wide trailer and a new TV. As she tries to look for her husband at the casino, she encounters Lila, who has stolen his car when he abandoned it before taking a bus to an unknown destination. Like Ray’s, Lila’s life is in total dissolution. She lives in a mini-trailer, ostracized by the community after her husband sank in the river in a smuggling operation and her mother-in-law took her baby when he was born. Neither woman seems to be sustained by the soil or terra, the land that nourishes, but are disciplined and punished by the terrere that is part of the word “territory” (cf. Appadurai 1996, 46; Elden 2009, xxviii). These similarities, however, are overridden in the face of territoriality. When Lila refuses to return the car, claiming that she found it with the keys in it, and Ray threatens to call the state troopers, Lila simply responds that the state troopers have no jurisdiction on the reservation. “This is Mohawk territory,” she claims. The physical premises of the nation-state are transformed into a blank and smooth page. For Ray, the woods where the dialogue takes place come under the national space of the U.S.; as such, they are part of a striated space that is subject to the order, authority, stability, and fixity of a well-established country. For her, “This is New York State.” For Lila, however, the state has no authority on the reservation. Mohawk territory, from this point of view, is “un-national,” a blank page, a category that frees up place from national alliances. The reservation reveals itself as polysemous and articulates the fissure between the local and translocal, the national and the transnational (cf. Appadurai 1996, 46-47).

The exchange between the two women stands as a superb analysis of the anatomy of the state and what it means for different contingents. Judith Butler and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak have argued that the state, as the legal and institutional structures that delimit a certain territory, “is supposed to service the matrix for the obligations and prerogatives of citizenship. It is that which forms the conditions under which we are juridically bound” (2007, 3). The binding is double-edged, Butler and Spivak explain, and can translate as “juridical belonging,” but can also create forms of “non-belonging as a quasi-permanent state” (ibid., 3-4). Here lies the double edge of the state, for if it “binds in the name of the nation, conjuring a certain version of the nation forcibly, if not powerfully, then it also unbinds, releases, expels, banishes” (ibid., 4-5). For those contingents that have been periodically or historically expelled or banished, unbinding is not carried out “through emancipatory means, i.e. through ‘letting go’ or ‘setting free.’” Rather, the state “expels precisely through an exercise of power that depends upon barriers and prisons and, so, in the mode of a certain containment” (ibid.). In the case of Native Americans, containment and coercion were institutionalized through the reservation system that maintained their condition as dispossessed.3 Like the status of those who are incarcerated, immobilized, or enslaved within the state, Native Americans are contained within the national body as “its interiorized outside,” that is, “they are produced as stateless at the same time that they are jettisoned from juridical forms of belonging” (ibid., 16). As the inhabitant of this interior- ized outside, Lila is contained within national perimeters and dispossessed by the same state. She is the representative of a contingent of people who, in Homi Bhabha’s words, “will not be contained within the Heim of the national culture and its unisonant discourse, but are themselves the marks of a shifting boundary that alienates the frontiers of the modern nation” (1994, 164). Unwelcome into the home of the nation-state, Lila carries with her the limits of the country itself. She represents the outer limit, where the inner national sanctum ends. Her position as shifting boundary, however, affords her a privileged position from which to transform the crossing of boundaries into the profitable business of smuggling immigrants into the U.S. Her lines become lines of flight.

The duo is a perfect one, for it blends the savvy Mohawk, the coyote within the inner border of the Mohawk reservation, and the safe race of the white woman, whose color will always protect her from the state troopers patrolling the border between reservation and New York State. The latter is the color line, as W. E. B. DuBois ([1903] 1989) termed it, the frontier that draws the ultimate fine line superimposed onto the spatial and the historical boundary. A neophyte in the intricacies of the intermittent border, Ray follows Lila’s instructions on their first run and proceeds from road to path until both women face the vast expanse of the frozen river. The dialogue that ensues reveals the different meanings of the geopolitical border. When Ray comments: “But that is Canada,” Lila automatically corrects her: “That’s Mohawk land. The Res is on both sides of the river.” With this conceptual corrective, Lila simply dismantles the drawing of the Forty- Ninth Parallel and the ensuing formation of contemporary nation-states. The translocality she is driving on is not the result of a movement but of the confinement of peoples, since “Native communities predate the formation of modern nation-states and predate the arrival of settler colonists by thousands of years” (Champagne 2005, 3). Her words also echo the tenet that Native identity is not a grant from the nation-state for limited rights to territory or self-government; it does not derive from colonial legal proclamations or the legal decisions of courts. Native identity and nationality derive from their prior occupation of the land and from their self-government according to their own laws (Champagne 2005, 5). These forms of selfgovernment, however, are inscribed within binational demarcations. The waters of the Saint Lawrence River the two women traverse mark the spatial border between the U.S. and Canada. Interlocked in this spatial dimension lies the temporal axis, and the history of white encroachment on the American continent, an expansion couched in the myth of the Virgin Land, as we explained in Chapter 1. The pioneers’ mobility reinforced the immobility and enclosure of the Native American. As nomadic heroes, the settlers created their counterparts, the static and corralled Native Americans. During the land cession treaties of the nineteenth century, the Great Lakes Aboriginal peoples ceded most of their homeland and were either relocated west of the Mississippi or by the 1850s accepted small reservations scattered throughout the Great Lakes basin.4 Although Natives retained part of their homeland, the reservations were too small to maintain a traditional hunting-fishing economy. More than ever, they depended on white largesse. Their precarious situation and confinement to reservations also made them vulnerable to government programs of forced acculturation (Danzinger 2008, 5). Containment was coupled with dispossession, as officials continually opened Native lands for resource exploitation and permitted white settlement on Native grounds (ibid.). The reservation thus became what Kandiyoti (2009, 40, 41) terms a “site,” a spatial unit whose content is frequently assumed to be fixed and that resembles the concept of disciplined, planned, controlled, or striated spaces of Foucault and Deleuze and Guat- tari. The enclosure responds to a need to reconfigure and evict in order to redefine what is properly American, and correlates with Erika Lee’s concept of gatekeeping, as explored in Chapter 3. Once these “spatial stereotypes” (Kandiyoti 2009, 41) are created, those who inhabit them are automatically envisioned as their legitimate contents.

Given this historical process of containment, dispossession, and “site making,” it is not surprising that Lila, like Stafford’s homage to the “Un-National” Monument, seeks to undo the binational mythology of place-naming and place-creating. As if immersed in a Bartelbyan process of disinscription, she undoes “the geography of legality” (cf. de Certeau 1984, 87) by claiming the two sides of the river as Mohawk territory. In so doing, Lila reverses the action of “national” and the act of claiming citizenship. The frozen river becomes simply un-national. As in Bartleby’s story, there is a subtlety in this practice of un- that goes beyond the simple negation. “Un” proposes the reversing of an action, the going back to what was before. Just as Stafford returns to that moment when there is no nation to choose from, Lila instructs Ray on “a release from the national” (cf. Ricou 2005, 8) as they cross the un-monument of the frozen river. The crossing entails a deletion and erasure that vacates the premises of the tracing of the border. Not surprisingly, there is no landmark to signal the border drawn in the water; no trace of the Forty-Ninth Parallel; no naming of nations, no gate fastened open, and no arch—just an invitation to read the language of the river and traverse its crust. To Ray’s query about the border patrol, Lila simply answers with the logical sequence that there is no border patrol because there is no border. Ray’s questions reveal the internalized vision of the political border, the division between countries safeguarded by a gatekeeper. Moving from one side to the other requires a definition of national identity that, in turn, legitimates the tracing of the line and secures the integrity of the two nation-states that it separates. Negating the meaning of the geopolitical line, however, equals the cancellation of the historical dimension of the border, for there are Mohawks on both sides of the physically and metaphorically frozen divide. Slowly and cautiously the two women proceed across the frozen river as the camera offers vistas into the uninterrupted horizontality, with only a danger sign as a land (or water) mark. Thus the two sides of the border, with their presumed national perimeters, become unnamed. Dissected from the national mythology, the border becomes the un-place, the site that predates national alliances and demarcations.

Just as the U.S. and Canadian governments opened Aboriginal lands to white settlement, the Mohawks in the movie open the limits of their reservations to migrants in transit. A simple protocol structures the operation; there is no border choreography or scripted dialogue. The migrants get into the trunk of the car after a monetary transaction supervised by Lila and Ray and are then delivered to a Pakistani intermediary off the reservation. Lila’s words when she corrects Ray’s comment that smuggling is a crime, “There’s no border. This is free trade,” point at the crux of an operation where she is just an agent in the maintenance of an open field for capital investment and accumulation. The immigrants themselves are envisioned as mere cargo. There is no human engagement during the crossing. The encounter with the Other is carried out with hygienic precision and relegated to a standard procedure of pickup and delivery. The “being-one-self of anything,” be it border or identity, is kept intact during the operation, with both sets of players having distinct places and roles assigned in the journey. The limit between the Mohawk nation and New York State, where state troopers are always stationed, becomes the ultimate boundary in the operation, the color line that opens or closes depending on the race of the crosser. To Ray’s uneasiness about their seemingly gatekeeping presence, Lila only retorts with the common sense of the border region: “They’re not gonna stop you. You’re white.” Once the operation is complete, Lila and Ray deliver the cargo at a location off the reservation revealingly called “Pioneer Motel.” The name of the motel casts an ironic light on the transaction. The body of the immigrant, a closed and sealed entity precariously delivered in a temporary non-place, enters the hospitality industry of the U.S. but is never welcomed into the country. At the same time, the motel draws its own intermittent line between the “real” pioneers that laid down the foundations of the country through land usurpation and illegal occupation, on the one hand, and contemporary pioneers that will always be outside history, on the other.5 From the Native point of view, however, it is the former that bears the traces of a threatening visitation.

 
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