Audra Simpson
Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States
Duke University Press, 2014
280 pages

Reviewed by Jesse Ritner

What if the settler-colonial project is incomplete? The question may seem bizarre. After all, decolonial critique argues that settler-colonialism is not an event, but a process that continues to function today. And like all processes, it is liable to disintegrate due to the tensions within a system of power. And yet, settler-colonial critiques too often presume that issues of political authority and sovereignty have been resolved, and the settler-state has won the day. This is due, in part, to a major intellectual and material problem that has by and large gone unanswered. What is a sovereign Indigenous nation, and how does it function within the settler-state? The general consensus is that the settler-governments of the United States and Canada bestow certain levels of sovereignty on Indigenous nations. Audra Simpson’s goal in her monograph Mohawk Interruptus is to overthrow this notion and demonstrate the centrality of Indigenous action in defining Indigenous sovereignty. Simpson strives for a new set of anthropological questions, forgoing how Indigenous nations may fit within settler-theories of politics. Instead she asks us to consider how Indigenous people themselves understand their sovereignty. To this end, her book is as much a methodological treatise as it is a theoretical one. Simpson offers her own nation, the Kahnawá:ke as a case study. In the end, she demonstrates that it is Indigenous discourse which functions as the material foundations to Indigenous sovereignty.

Simpson critiques the methods of both political science and anthropology as part of the reason that Indigenous sovereignty is so undertheorized. Inverting what she sees as the exterior orientation of anthropology, Mohawk Interruptus offers readers an ethnography from the inside. She contends that the Kahnawá:ke theorize their own conceptions of sovereignty through acts of refusal. Take for example, the idea of human rights or citizenship as a gift. The language of gifts presumes a universality of “goods” people should want. However, the Kahnawá:ke actively refuse the legitimacy of universal goods. Rather than presuming the Kahnawá:ke wrong, Simpson interrogates this refusal, and finds in it a radical rejection of settler-liberal-democracy. In her terms, the Haudenosaunee “refuse the ‘gifts’” of settler-citizenship. They don’t vote or pay taxes – they simply won’t stop being “politically” Iroquois (7). 

Simpson divides her book into six chapters. Chapter one introduces her claims, providing readers an overview of relevant arguments within various fields. The chapter is devoted to laying out her three driving themes. The first is ‘nestled sovereignty,’ which claims that sovereignty can exist within sovereignty. The second is that ‘refusal’ is the political alternative to ‘recognition,’ or the idea of a universal liberal ‘good.’ Third, she contends that the culture and politics necessary for the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples has not yet been provided by either political science or anthropology. Her book’s central claim is wound through these three contentions. Not only is Mohawk Interruptus a powerful example of ethnography from within, it also contends that ethnography from without asks the wrong questions. By trying to theorize culture in specific ways, it has tended to obscure rather than reveal. In its place, Simpson provides a “cartography of refusal” which stretches from precolonial invocations of sovereignty into the present (33).

Chapter two turns from theory to history in order to explore the membership debate around Kahnawá:ke citizenship. Membership and citizenship revolve around historical circumstances in which the Kahnawá:ke were and still are forced to define who is legally a part of the nation. The debate has two sides within the community. The first, which she deems the culturalist approach, determines membership through kinship ties based in clans, meaning that anyone whose mother is Kahnawá:ke is a tribal member. The second, which she calls the “geneologic-cum-’racialist’ definitions,” determines citizenship through a type of racialized logic in which a citizen is anyone with at least four Mohawk great-grandparents (44). The debate marks a continued conflict with settler-colonial regimes, where the need to both culturally and politically defend their independence requires partaking in an action which limits Mohawk society in likely undesirable ways. Despite their contradictions, Simpson argues that both internal viewpoints regarding Kahnawá:ke citizenship serve as acts of refusal toward what she suggests is a very American sensibility of identity defined by family origin stories based in European emigration and largely devoid of cultural, political, or social connection. Yet, making sense of this debate also requires historicizing the conditions which govern it. 

Chapter three offers an intellectual history of both anthropology as a discipline and of anthropology surrounding Iroquois identity, starting with Ely Parker and Lewis Henry Morgan. Throughout she offers two themes. First she questions the desire of those writing ethnography from without, and second, she contests the geography of anthropology which has historically focused on the Handsome Lake band of Iroquois with the underlying presumption that they are representative of all Iroquois peoples. By thinking of the ways in which ethnography and captivity narratives overlap in style, content, and scope, she shows that culture – as a topic of study – is “the ontological endgame” of a variety of material-colonial encounters. These encounters include warfare, trade, and sex, to name but a few (97). As such, it follows that the study of culture, in its functional sense, serves as a continuation of the imperial project. In response to the history she lays out in chapter three, chapter four lays out an alternative ethnography, one that refuses difference and instead centers on the voice of the people being studied.  The result is a narrative which refuses the idea that a hierarchical colonial past is necessary to true or enlightened work. She listens for the moments in which people do not speak and when they ask for the recorder to be turned off. Rather than presuming these moments are underlying expressions regarding the functionality or dysfunctionality of culture, she looks to what they may tell us of politics and subjectivity within the historical contradictions of the present. Chapter five then acts as her proving ground. Using in large part autoethnography, Simpson looks at border encounters at the U.S.-Canada border. She explores how people perform acts of refusal on a daily basis. Central to her analysis are the quotidian moments when Kahnawá:ke at the border refuse to provide material identification associating themselves with either Canada or the United States, instead insisting on the legitimacy of their Mohawk given identification. She argues that this is an insistence on the nestled sovereignty of their own Indigenous nation.  These actions are not an expression of cultural function, but rather are actions which through their identifying capacity become political action. Simpson’s book is at times a challenging read, yet her clear writing and engaging ethnographic details offer moments of empirical evidence to help the reader through a larger theoretical claim. Rather than sitting on her theory and then explaining at the end through an example, she effectively interweaves evidence throughout, allowing the reader to digest more limited claims before moving on to the next. Simpson’s concept of “refusal” is an essential contribution to Native American and Indigenous Studies, as well as to decolonial projects. That said, her powerful critique of cultural functionalism and the ways in which it disguises historical pretense should prove useful to a variety of disciplines within the humanities and social sciences, including anthropology, political science, history, sociology, cultural studies, and obviously Native American and Indigenous Studies. The value of this book is hard to overstate.