Mark Rifkin
Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination
Duke University Press, 2017
296 pages

Reviewed by Erin Yanota

Mark Rifkin’s Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination reveals the possibilities of thinking through Indigenous ways of “becoming” and “being-in-time” for contributing to Indigenous efforts to assert sovereignty. For Rifkin, failure to recognize Indigenous peoples’ “temporal sovereignty” perpetuates settler-colonial state violence toward Indigenous groups. Such failures might involve treating indigenous peoples as aberrations or ruptures in Western modernity, or as vestiges of an authentic Native ‘tradition’ in a modern world. Indigenous peoples might likewise be seen as inhabitants of a (nominally Native) cyclical temporality rather than a (nominally non-Native) linear temporality, or even as inhabitants of a shared, so-called ‘universal’ temporality that nonetheless orients one through settler-colonial “frames of reference.” Instead, Rifkin explores ways of understanding Indigenous “processes of becoming”–of experiencing the past and of determining their own futures–that “encompass Native stories of both fragmentation and reinvention on their own terms (rather than in terms of a settler frame of reference).” 

The stakes of Rifkin’s argument are broad and political, and the scope of the argument mirrors such breadth. The dominant cultural products in Rifkin’s archive include film and Native-authored fiction from the decades surrounding the turn of the twenty-first century. But Rifkin also attends to nineteenth- and twentieth-century US-American histories of state violence against Indigenous groups, as well as contemporaneous Indigenous responses to that violence. It is worth noting that the violence Rifkin considers operates both overtly, through “exceptional events of spectacular violence” like military conflict, and covertly, through “mundane, state-sanctioned processes” like treaties and other forms of US-American government policy.

The book’s argument is organized in a broadly chronological, four-part structure. The first chapter, “Indigenous Orientations,” outlines the understandings of time and temporal experience upon which Rifkin’s project rests. This outline situates Rifkin’s study at the intersection of several fields of scholarship, such as indigenous studies, postcolonial theory, phenomenology, and queer theory. Drawing on the resources of Philip Deloria, V.F. Cordova, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Henri Bergson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Sarah Ahmed (among others), Rifkin establishes that the human experience and perception of time is fundamentally multiple; each person’s experience of time, moreover, is predicated on their specific “orientation” and “frame of reference.” In other words, present experience depends on both one’s past and one’s position relative to future events. Furthermore, the experience of events within time will differ from person to person and group to group. The various nodes in this theoretical network come together to reveal, in Rifkin’s view, the as yet unarticulated historicity of peoples indigenous to the land we now call the United States, as well as their orientations toward and processes of determining their own futurity. 

Rifkin begins Chapter 2, “The Silence of Ely S. Parker,” with the 2012 film Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg) as an example of the ways in which US-American history positions the Civil War as a “caesura” in the nation’s history: a necessary event that enables “the becoming of national history in its increasing materialization of liberty.” From such a settler frame of reference, many have conceived of the Civil War as a decisive ‘break’ from a national past of institutionalized white supremacy. This manner of structuring history, for Rifkin, “normalize[s] U.S. national jurisdiction as the de facto container in which time happens” and elides the complex temporalities of contemporaneous Indigenous histories that destabilize the division between the ante- and post-bellum periods of US-American history. In Rifkin’s reading, the silent character of Ely S. Parker in Lincoln exposes such Indigenous temporal orientations by indexing what remains absent from settler accounts of US-American historical progress during and after the Civil War. For Rifkin, these absences include the Dakota War (1862), the historical Parker’s involvement in Indian Affairs throughout the treaty period, and the writings of Charles Alexander Eastman, a prominent Native intellectual during the early twentieth century.  

The final two chapters of Beyond Settler Time mark a shift in the book’s approach, turning toward literary representations of Indigenous experiences and perceptions of time over against Natives’ forced “translation” into “an account of time defined by the coordinates of settler governance and sociality.” Chapter 3, “The Duration of the Land,” takes up the allotment period by way of John Joseph Mathews’s 1934 novel, Sundown. This novel, for Rifkin, reckons with “the effect and legacy of settler policy”–Osage allotment, specifically–by highlighting what he calls the “density” of Osage experience rather than its “difference.” Attending to the novel’s form as well as its political and philosophical investments, Rifkin argues that the novel’s central character, Chal, figures for the incommensurability between different temporal frames of reference, when settler-colonial allotment policy layers a settler frame over (but does not displace) an Osage frame. For Rifkin, Chal’s felt experiences of queerness throughout the novel bespeak his positionality at the threshold of two frames of reference. Indeed, at the same time as he struggles to “engage with the landscape in ways not scripted by economic development,” he “deviat[es] from the trajectory of ‘straight time’ toward privatizing (and conjugally directed) individualism”–the orientation toward futurity that allotment policy sought to instill in the Osage. 

The final full chapter of the book, “Ghost Dancing Century’s End,” continues to consider Indigenous deviations from and exceedances of settler frames of reference (or “chrononormativity”). Reading Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer (1996) and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Gardens in the Dunes (1999), Rifkin argues that such deviations and exceedances can be attended by acknowledgments of “Native realities in which the dynamics of settler colonialism exert force but do not define the limits of Indigenous possibility, placemaking, and perception.” As Ghost Dance narratives, both texts engage Indigenous frames of reference that demonstrate adaptation and response to the material conditions of settler colonialism, as well as “reinvention on their own terms,” instead of nostalgic return to an ‘authentic,’ Native past. Both novels, that is, “reconceptualize historicity” to “theorize temporal sovereignty” through affective, quotidian experience of time and to articulate possibilities for Indigenous self-determination through prophecy, vision, and spirit. To conclude the monograph, Rifkin uses a coda, “Deferring Juridical Time,” to gesture toward ways in which one might trouble the central concepts of his argument, not limited to “temporal sovereignty” itself. 

Rifkin’s writing throughout the book is compelling, careful, and nuanced. His argument could have benefitted either from a more sustained and consistent engagement with queer theoretical notions of futurity or from a clearer articulation of his critique of queer temporalities and the stakes of that critique. Rifkin’s point that queer theory is insufficient for theorizing Indigenous temporalities because of its potential implication in settler frames of reference is well taken. But he arguably undermines that point by returning periodically to queer theory throughout the study, with little indication of how he has adapted or modified that theory to suit the terms of his argument–if at all. In addition, as Krista L. Benson has noted in her review of Beyond Settler Time in Feminist Theory (vol. 19, no. 3, 2018), Rifkin’s engagement with decoloniality could (and perhaps should, given the book’s investment in indigenous sovereignty) be more substantial. Nevertheless, the study will be valuable for scholars of the various fields Rifkin engages as well as newcomers to those fields. Beyond Settler Time contains careful theorizations, while it provides important indigenous counterhistories to challenge the self-evidence and ‘universality’ of settler time, historicity, and futurity. Though the philosophical underpinnings of the first chapter may be unapproachable to some, Rifkin generally achieves an admirable balance between theory, historicizing, and close reading throughout the study to produce what is arguably a powerful expression of settler solidarity in Beyond Settler Time.