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Reflections of Native Space

December 19, 2017

New OSU Press author Natchee Blu Barnd has always been “fascinated by the fact that space and identity, geography and culture, cannot be extracted from one another.” This fascination, which perhaps began at birth, inspired his book Native Space: Geographic Strategies to Unsettle Settler Colonialism. Natchee shares his lifelong exploration of the creation, identification, and reflection of space in relation to power structures.


Native SpacesIt’s one thing to say I have always been interested in geography and space. It’s quite another to understand or make sense of why this is true. Here is what I can say. I moved a lot when I was young. I lived in and interacted with a number of different kinds of places. We lived at the edge of the redwood forest, near farmlands, in the suburbs, in cities, on reservations. I saw different practices and rules of geography. I heard different stories about what places meant to those within and to those outside of those places. I saw inclusions and exclusions. Truths and lies. Connections and walls. I noticed how things looked and how they felt, for me and for others. As I became a teen, I actively sought to reshape or challenge some spaces, while I fought to sustain or protect others. And I learned techniques of and the consequences for transgressing space. Taken together, my experiences left me with the unarticulated sense that geography is really about thought, action, and process.

In some ways, my naming at birth also led me to Native Space. I think carrying such a name compelled me to think more about my family, about history and culture, and about justice. My family is a mixed and multiethnic consequence of colonialism, imperialism, and overlapping geographies. And I come from a long line of unruly working class and “underclass” subjects, cast low along the margins of power and entangled by displacement, travelling, and hard laboring. I am not an enrolled member of any Native Nation, and did not live deeply-rooted in any single traditional culture or community. I am happily the product of a multi-ethnic and multi-racial community experience. But I have always been closely cared for and raised by Native family and community; in and around Native space. I somehow took all those resources that might otherwise be seen only as impediments and turned them toward learning and research.

My name and my curiosities about how people craft spaces, especially in relation to indigeneity, stayed with me as I moved through graduate school. I came to this topic most precisely during a class on media and race while I was a Ph.D. student in Ethnic Studies at UC San Diego. I was always seeking clarity on how to move within and between Indigenous Studies and comparative Ethnic Studies, and to recreate the geographic movement I enjoyed growing up. I found myself weaving between and across different academic fields and subfields, but without effective bridges or guidance. My training and independent wayfinding ultimately led me to merge photography, history, culture, maps, and art as part of an interdisciplinary research toolkit which has since become crucial for my teaching, mentoring, and scholarship. I found a “home” woven together by Ethnic Studies, Indigenous Studies, and Cultural Geography.

In writing this book about space as a practice (not a thing), I have come to better understand the relationships between identity, power, and geography. I now subscribe to the maxim, paraphrasing Anaïs Nin, that we cannot see space as it is, but only as we are. So, space is a reflection. Yet, our reflections also help to create us. Most important for this book, I want readers to see that spaces can and usually do exist in layers and as uneasy sets of overlappings. One central lesson that I share in Native Space is that indigenous communities continue to create spaces that overlap with the more commonly recognized space of the United States. Indigenous geographies are actively sustained. And I don’t just mean those locations marked as sacred, or the boundaries of a reservation. I mean the totality of indigenous geographies.

As my reflections might indicate, my research is not overly interested in the past. This is especially important because non-Natives frequently, and quite violently, locate Native peoples in the past. As my book outlines, this act of “placing” Native people in the past is both a mechanism and a justification for displacement. Reflecting the community-responsive concerns of Ethnic Studies, and the place-based worldviews of indigenous communities everywhere, I am interested in the realities of the present and possibilities of the future. Native Space is fundamentally about indigenous futurities. It refuses ongoing practices of settler colonialism, which sustain a deeply flawed vision of the colonial project as final and complete; which ostensibly means the elimination of indigenous peoples. I do not see this as the future.

I have come away from this book with a number of personal convictions and understandings, each of which frame my stories, arguments, and analysis. First, I find it astonishing how everyday practices are the foundation of all power, despite our common sense understandings of that concept. I have grown in my appreciation of those intellectuals, like Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault, who articulated the seemingly benign ways that we shape the world and how it in turns shapes us without our realization. Likewise, I find it crucial to recognize that many indigenous thinkers and leaders (like Naiche, Set-tainte, and Vine Deloria) made parallel observations and thus enacted resistances against the immense pressures and violences of settler colonialism.

I also take away a better understanding of the crucial relationship between the cultural/social and the material. I am fascinated by the fact that space and identity, geography and culture, cannot be extracted from one another. This offers a bit of humility in terms of our ability to know. And human humility is always in need of some exercise. This fact shows us that space is the work of our own doing, for better and for worse, and thus our responsibility or fault. When space does not align with us, it means that we have the potential to create alignment. It also likely means that the most obvious alignment reflects the expression of power and disempowerment – since these always exist together.

I want to end by returning to my name. I was named after a Chiricahua man, Naiche, who led his band of Nde (Apache) resistance against the U.S. and Mexican militaries, and local militias in the late 1800s. My understanding is that the name translates to something like “going through things, as if looking for something.” Other translations have also explained it as “mischievous.” In either case, I think it has proven apt for my personality, career, and life path. More importantly, Naiche’s example offered me an important frame for seeing the world. I have probably come to understand space through my reckoning with that name, and the responsibility resulting from my naming.

Few non-Nde people have heard or know Naiche’s name. Almost everyone, however, has heard of his contemporary, Geronimo, if only as a surreal catch-phrase yelled before leaping out of airplanes or riverbanks. Nevertheless, Naiche (as it is spelled by some of his descendants) was alongside Goyaałé (aka Geronimo) as a fierce and important defender of his people, their culture, and their lands. While he was ultimately defeated militarily, his example has always served as a humbling form of inspiration for me and my own responsibilities. After Naiche surrendered, he was a prisoner of war for nearly three decades, “guilty” of and punished for not letting go of the insistence that those desert lands of the southwest and the Nde must continue together. He was not interested in becoming a quaint and colorful part of the United States’ past. He was engaged in actions aimed at creating acceptable Nde futures. If all space is comprised and sustained by the meanings generated between people and the world around them, and if those meanings are resilient, they can and do survive even against things as devastating as “conquest.”

Indigenous spaces and geographies, in particular, have not simply disappeared although they have necessarily shifted. Native geographies have persisted, usually beyond the perception of the non-Native world. That was the first time I grasped a research thread (geography/power/race) that had always been at the core and will likely always serve as the guide for my work. Naiche’s story (at least as I have come to know it, from some distance) helped me internalize how indigenous space does not disappear with the stroke of a pen, at the barrel of a rifle, or even after physical removal.

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