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Shiri Pasternak’s Grounded Authority is a timely work that examines how colonial authority is exercised and contested on Indigenous territories in Canada. In unpacking the work of jurisdiction, Pasternak elucidates how state sovereignty is rendered meaningful through the organizing and managing of Indigenous space. While the book specifically examines the Algonquins of Barriere Lake’s struggles against the federal government, the province of Quebec, and resource extractive industries, Pasternak’s interrogation of state jurisdiction bears significance for Indigenous communities across Canada and other colonial contexts as they continue to fight for liberation and freedom.
As reflected in the title of chapter 2 of the book, “How Did Colonialism Fail to Dispossess” (italics mine), Pasternak is politically committed to disclosing the fragility of settler colonial capitalism by examining how Indigenous assertions of jurisdiction rupture state sovereignty and capitalist accumulation. In this way, she urges geographers to center interrogations of power through the spatio-legal authority and brilliance of Indigenous peoples. This is a shift from a great deal of earlier scholarship on Indigenous space that reified marginalizing and victim-centered narratives. The book is an indication that there is a growing community of non-Indigenous geographers who understand that conducting research with Indigenous communities is a privilege that is earned from years of living in reciprocity with Indigenous peoples.
In the case of Grounded Authority, the time that Pasternak dedicated to relationship-building and solidarity work gives rise to an incredibly detailed and rich ethnography. This is a testament to her commitment to engage with theory in a grounded way, by engaging with the people who generate and live it. It is in these details that the book spoke to me, as I was reminded of the complex kinship relations that give rise to legal orders in the place I call home, Mushkegowuk territory. As Pasternak shares stories of Anishinaabe resistance and assertions of authority, I was reminded of the countless acts embodied by members of my family and community as they have come under state surveillance and violence, and that these actions are deeply embedded in intimate relationships with land, water, animal and plant relations. As an Indigenous reader, this felt familiar and empowering.
Yet, it is in the details that key tensions also arose for me. At various moments, I could not help but ask myself how much detail is needed to understand how colonial violence happens. For example, chapters 7 & 8 extensively detail divide-and-conquer tactics mobilized by the Canadian government, with a particular focus on the resulting internal politics in Barriere Lake. Pasternak is vigilant in doing this, as divide-and-conquer tactics are situated within ideological and technocratic arrangements of power. Still, in reading this section of the book, I pondered over how much I would share about the internal politics of my own community, as well as other Indigenous communities I have worked with throughout the years, particularly those located outside of my nation’s territory where I hold less authority. Would sharing such extensive details put my family and community at risk of legal repercussions? Would it put my relationships with family and community members at risk, as well as those that my family holds with other Indigenous families, communities and nations? This compelled me to think further about how academics approach the need to analyze colonial dispossession and violence without putting the people that raise us up to do this work in precarious positions. How do we navigate the process of deciding what we will make accessible in academic spaces when the colonial gaze remains a structuring feature of academia, and when we continue to work against racist assumptions and discourses of Indigenous peoples? (How) does this process differ depending on whether you are an Indigenous or non-Indigenous scholar and, crucially, whether you are a member of the nation(s) you speak and write about?
In calling up these tensions, I do not want to take away from the critical contributions of Grounded Authority. Rather, I seek to honestly foreground difficult questions that came up for me as I worked my way through the book, and to invite further dialogue on the ways academics uphold relational accountabilities to the Indigenous peoples and places we work with. I am confident that Pasternak welcomes these types of questions and conversations as she is embedded in a community of Indigenous leaders who grapple with these types of issues on a daily basis. These political and legal authorities are constantly challenging those of us who are working in the academy, as we seek to build reciprocal and accountable scholarship with the Indigenous communities we come from, and/or work with.
The book will no doubt incite a great deal of discussion amongst scholars who are navigating the delicacy of writing about land claims and resource extractive developments taking place on Indigenous territories given community tensions and divides. I also hope that it incites discussion on whose authority we are centering in these discussions, beyond rupturing the white settler-Indigenous divide, to focus on the critical diversity and multiple authorities within Indigenous nations. As Pasternak reiterates throughout the book, land is the foundation of Anishinaabe legal orders. Yet, Anishinaabe as well as other Indigenous feminist, queer and Two-Spirit theorists remind us that these land-based relationships are experienced and lived differently, giving rise to the complexity of Indigenous legal orders. Throughout the book, Anishinaabe women and youth assert their authority; however, limited space is dedicated to unpacking the legal thinking and practices that they embody. As such, I was left wondering what could be learned about Indigenous jurisdiction through the intelligence of these women and youth, and how they might complicate our understandings of the customary government that is centered throughout the book, and the diverse roles these legal actors assume on the land, and within the community.
Overall, Grounded Authority is not merely a work that pushes our thinking on how Indigenous jurisdiction refuses and ruptures colonial capitalist power. Rather, it incites questions and dialogue on the various embodiments and manifestations of Indigenous law, including how Indigenous authorities meet one another amidst ongoing colonial incursions. This is what I hold on to as I continue to reflect on this work, and consider how it applies to my family and community’s life. Indeed, grounded authority is the foundation to resisting colonial regimes of power but, beyond this, it is also about rebuilding political diplomacies and legal orders between Indigenous communities and nations. This is what I understand to be at the heart of Pasternak’s work: that grounded authority activates relations and futurities of decolonization and self-determination.