latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
Grounded Authority is an exceptional book. It is meticulously researched, laying out evidence in support of claims in a lively, ethnographic, and relentlessly empirical manner. It moves deftly through levels of inquiry to place Mitchikanibikok Inik, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake’s (ABL) legal authority into a frame of analysis that deepens our understanding of the techniques of settler colonialism in North America, as well as the history and strategy of Indigenous knowledge, philosophy, and politics within and beyond colonizing contexts.
The central claim that Pasternak makes is that the legal techniques, reasoning and respatialization of Indigenous lands are tied to ideal and mercenary modes of mapping ‘jurisdiction’ and ‘sovereignty’ by settler states in Indigenous territories. Sovereignty may be seen as a retrograde technique of monarchical rule, a symptom of political malice and inequality, a territorial concentration of power that is fundamentally marked by unfreedom and bound to property regimes as well as the state system. As a political formation that is rooted in histories and traditions so deeply outside of Indigenous history and responsibilities to land, water and animals (what Pasternak calls “ontologies of care”) that are also deeply at odds with viewing life in land as “supply,” we might say of sovereignty: “let’s do away with it (again)” or, “off with the king’s head, (again)!” Yet it is the legal framework vis-à-vis treaty framework that guarantees many Indigenous peoples in North America their rights to what little land is left, not to mention protections to those lands. So although fraught and well beyond the scope of this book discussion, ‘sovereignty’ (and its manifestations and guarantors, treaties being one example) remains an important game in town, one that many Indigenous peoples inherit and have to work within. Communities like the ABL along with others on unceded lands were and are outside of that legal purview, and that is why the ABL were able to govern themselves with their own system of landed order until the Indian Act of 1876 was imposed upon them in 2010. “Mitchikanibikok Anishinabe Onakinakewin ”—their “regime of jurisdiction” (p. 27), their “sacred constitution that contains the law for everything that grows on earth” (p. 78) and thus, their authority—governed that territory up until 18 years ago, and its continued assertion is a feat of endurance and resistance.
First Nations in Canada have struggled with the aftermath of the imposition of the Indian Act through the 20th and 21st Century. This is a uniform set of government regulations that legally defines and contains life and lands for Indians in Canada. It imposed a heteropatriarchal electoral system in communities and attempted to regender Indigenous peoples as Euro-Victorian subjects of rule. Notably, the Indian Act sets the legal and social and political stage for a biopolitical regime of Indigenous population management. This mode of population management is tied to land management, as lands started being surveyed in the 17th Century, well in advance of the Act but in doing so made Indigenous territories legible enough to be governed. With that legibility came the Act which introduced the presence of the state within them through the figure of the Indian agent, and those necessary for the governance of these new non-municipal but sort of municipal enclaves of wards in waiting (for civilization and citizenship via dispossession). The Indian Act has been a legal nightmare without parallel in Indigenous Canada for in some cases, over 100 years, as First Nations attempt to deal with the aftermath of this annihilation of governmental systems, gender relations, and modes of property. The ABL comes under that settler governmental chokehold very late in the game—2010—teaching us so much about strategies for dealing with a fundamentally accumulative state that views your land and the liveliness of that land as endless supply, not life. As Pasternak demonstrates in deep collaboration with the ABL, the ABL were not in some splendid pristine, state of nature outside the purview of the state prior to 2010. Half of the book examines the ways in which they were caught up with jurisdictional issues long before 2010, and undertook a long-term evasion process with forestry, mining and other extractive processes to finally sign a historic 1991 Trilateral Agreement with the Province of Quebec as well as Canada in their territory. This was an unprecedented alternative to the “comprehensive claims agreement” model which entails giving up title to lands, giving up rights, and obtaining personal property rights to land. The Trilateral Agreement would guarantee rights and would set up a framework for collaborative conservation, rather than ownership of resources. The failure of two of these three signatories (Quebec and Canada) to uphold their end of the Agreement forms the second half of the book as we see the lengths the ABL would go to in order to live as if the Agreement were upheld, and the dastardly legal means that Canada would undertake to have their jurisdiction and authority annihilated.
What energizes this pushback and this will to live upon land that is targeted relentlessly for taking and killing? But not only that: what energizes the will to enter into that treaty-like agreement for radical co-management that forms some of the center of the book, the 1991 Trilateral Agreement? This returns to the centrality of jurisdiction which is in turn attached to this underlying concept of authority. Here I see Pasternak making the awkward translation of Western forms of authority (the right to govern) to Anishnaabe understandings of authority (the respect and care for land and animals, and liveliness of place) seamlessly. For example, we learn that the state mapping of traplines (pages 118-120) emplots a map of hunting rights and conduct through the ideal of private property, which presumes that one would not want to hunt in someone else’s territory, even though there were and are sharing arrangements between hunters that avoid exhaustion of territories so that animals may “grow” (page 120).
Pasternak’s unrelenting attention to the many scales of knowledge and jurisdiction deepens that way in which we think about the machinations of Indigenous knowledge, political authority, law and sovereignty in Indigenous studies. She makes these transitions and translations, foregrounding the knowledge and words of the Matchewans, Russell Diabo, and others within and beyond ABL territories with great care and elegance. Norman and Marilyn talk about the relationships they have with animals as they watch and learn how to heal themselves through their knowledge. They use the bodies of animals to feed themselves and their families, but also to learn from the animals about what medicines to use, how to use them, when to cultivate and when to “kill.” This sort of observational and reciprocally-based law of the land energizes the actions discussed in this book, as well as gives great support to the implied argument that we should try to live together carefully, to do so with care, or there will be the prophesied present: a sort of environmental hell. In acting upon prophecy ABL are acting not out of self-interest but out of collective interest. Importantly, however, the collective here includes animals, includes their knowledge, their kinship systems—this may move us beyond the tired language of “carrying capacity” and into animal kinship and animal knowledge. The animals have something to teach us, and Pasternak has, with her friends from ABL and their commissioned studies, with those observations, those elders, taught us as well about how to live with forests even if you need to fell them.
So these ideas and practices of Anishnabe and in particular, ABL are in contradistinction to the aspiration of settler states and their aspirational planes: not only of property and it spatialized distributions of “perfect settler sovereignty” (Ford 2011) but also of clear and rationalized territories where settler law can unfold, properly. This will never actually be the case in settler societies, or perhaps any state system, as there is the nasty business of the prior, of indigenous governance and political legal systems and orders that come before and interrupt so called “settlement”.
This is a study of tremendous political effort, and in it we have a detailed examination of politically exhausting circumstances: the relentlessness of the states that ABL had to deal with, the avarice, and I know this is not surprising—anyone in political studies within Indigenous studies or anthropology, and certainly anyone organizing will tell you—the never-ending energy of these states to dispossess. But there are small victories and for the Mitichikanibikok Inik and their allies I think we come to understand that the stakes are far bigger than simply “winning” or getting the Trilateral Agreement honored and implemented. But that is part of it. And that Trilateral Agreement of 1991 is a sort of center of this book. As such, this is a story of Mitchikanibikok Inik and ABL care and effort, of their lives as well as the lives of those that own space and territory with them, of the danger of property discourse and practices in indigenous territories. This book is a tremendous contribution to not only Indigenous studies for its documentary effort and its recalibrations around sovereignty and authority, but is also about ethnography and history done in deep accountability to Indigenous lives, lands and histories.