Katie Walkiewicz on Indigenous and Black Freedom

Jun 15, 2023

In episode 151 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Indigenous studies and literature professor Katie Walkiewicz about states’ rights and the role this concept has played in US settler colonialism, enslavement, and dispossession as well as in radical projects seeking to create alternative political structures.

Katie Walkiewicz is an enrolled citizen of Cherokee Nation, an assistant professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego, and the associate director of the Indigenous Futures Institute.

They chat about Katie’s new book Reading Territory: Indigenous and Black Freedom, Removal, and the Nineteenth-Century State. The book shows how federalism and states’ rights were used to imagine US states into existence while clashing with relational forms of territoriality asserted by Indigenous and Black people.

They also explore how states rights have been mobilized in two landmark cases about Indigenous sovereignty: the 2020 case McGirt v. Oklahoma and the 2023 case Haaland v. Brackeen. (Note: The Brackeen decision was announced the same day this episode went live! So while the show notes/social media have been updated to reflect that, our interview was recorded several months before the decision was announced.)

In addition to tracing the violent imposition of states’ rights as tools for anti-Indigeneity and anti-Blackness, they also investigate how Black communities and Indigenous nations have sought to reimagine what a state could be, including through statehood campaigns for Black- and Native-run states.

Finally, they close out our conversation with a vision for a world of Indigenous and Black freedom, one beyond the bounds of both the nation and the state.

Cite this episode: Hannabach, Cathy (host). “Katie Walkiewicz on Indigenous and Black Freedom.” Imagine Otherwise. June 15, 2023. Produced by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire. Podcast. 19:00.

In this episode

  • The history of movement and removal in Indigenous and Black history
  • Why anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity are the bedrock of states’ rights
  • Indigenous and Black resistance projects, including alternative state movements
  • Futures of Indigenous and Black freedom
Cover of Reading Territory, with multicolored painting of feathers, plants, and barbed wire over a yellow center

About Katie Walkiewicz

Katie Walkiewicz (she/they) is an enrolled citizen of Cherokee Nation. She is an assistant professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego and the associate director of the Indigenous Futures Institute (IFI).

They are the author of Reading Territory: Indigenous and Black Freedom, Removal, and the Nineteenth-Century State (University of North Carolina Press, 2023), which shows how federalism and states’ rights were used to imagine US states into existence while clashing with relational forms of territoriality asserted by Indigenous and Black people. 

They are also a coeditor of The People Who Stayed: Southeastern Indian Writing after Removal with Geary Hobson and Janet McAdams (University of Oklahoma Press, 2010).

Their research and teaching focuses on Native American and Indigenous studies, print culture, early American literature and culture, nineteenth-century studies, Southern studies, speculative fiction, and horror.

Teaching and learning resources

Transcript

Click to read the transcript

[00:00:00] Cathy Hannabach: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about bridging art, activism, and academia to build more just futures.

I’m Cathy Hannabach, and today we’re discussing the legal and political concept of state’s rights—specifically the role that this concept has played in US settler colonialism, enslavement, and dispossession, as well as in radical projects seeking to create alterNative political structures.

[00:00:30] My guest for today’s episode is Katie Walkiewicz, who is an enrolled citizen of Cherokee Nation, an assistant professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego, and the associate director of the Indigenous Futures Institute.

[00:00:44] In the episode, we chat about Katie’s new book, Reading Territory: Indigenous and Black Freedom, Removal, and the Nineteenth-Century State.

[00:00:52] This book shows how federalism and state’s rights were used to imagine US states into existence while clashing with relational forms of territoriality asserted by Indigenous and Black people.

[00:01:05] We also explore how state’s rights have been mobilized in two landmark Supreme Court cases, the 2020 case McGirt v. Oklahoma and a case that we are expecting a verdict on any day now—Haaland v. Brackeen—which is expected to have an enormous impact on Indigenous sovereignty and rights. [Note: The Brackeen decision was announced right after this episode went live! So while the show notes/social media have been updated to reflect that, our interview was recorded several months before the decision was announced and so the interview reflects that.]

[00:01:25] In addition to tracing the violent imposition of state’s rights as a tool for anti-Indigeneity and anti-Blackness, we also investigate how Black communities and Indigenous nations have sought to reimagine what a state could be, including through statehood campaigns for Black and Native-run states.

[00:01:42] Finally, we close out our conversation with a vision for a world of Indigenous and Black freedom, one beyond the bounds of both the nation and the state.

[00:01:52] Thank you so much for being with us here today.

[00:01:54] Katie Walkiewicz: Oh, thank you, Cathy. I’m so excited to be in conversation with you.

[00:01:58] Cathy Hannabach: So, in your book, you argue that the concept and the practice of state’s rights has been crucial to US empire, particularly in the ways that it has historically been used to deprive both Indigenous and Black people of sovereignty.

[00:02:12] So to start off our conversation today, maybe for folks who are not yet familiar with this framework, what do you mean by state’s rights and why has this concept been so central to Indigenous and Black dispossession?

[00:02:25] Katie Walkiewicz: Thank you for that question. I think it’s a good one because state’s rights is itself this kind of strange, messy category.

[00:02:32] It’s unfortunately gained more prominence, I think, in the last few years that we’ve seen increased political divisiveness in the United States. Or folks might be familiar with it in re-narrations of the US Civil War as about state’s rights and not enslavement. But one of the things that I’m trying to argue, is that those are absolutely interconnected.

[00:02:51] I am especially interested in how states wield their power, not necessarily in contrast to the federal government but often to actually further the project of settler colonialism that the US is deeply invested in.

Most of the time when we think about Indigenous fights for sovereignty or questions about decolonization, we think in terms of the federal government because “legally”—and I put that in scare quotes—according to the US, only the federal government can negotiate with Indigenous tribes, with tribal nations.

[00:03:20] However, that’s just not the case on the ground. States’ rights and state power have a lot of control over how Indigenous communities are able to exert autonomy over their people, their lands, their communities.

[00:03:39] So, one of the things I’m trying to push is that actually the state has a lot to do with Indigenous sovereignty, which is a little bit different than the usual conversation.

One of the reasons that I’m arguing that the state is such a critical player in Indigenous and Black dispossession is that especially in the twenty-first century, a lot of our lives are negotiated by the state.

[00:04:06] States determine how incarceration operates. I think most notably recently, states have enormous control over reproductive justice. So, I’m really trying to think about not only the power they have but how that power is deeply entrenched in anti-Blackness.

States were produced after and because of the theft of Indigenous land and the attempted and violent genocide of Indigenous people. States’ rights have been consistently used for almost 200 years to further enslavement and anti-Black legislation, including segregation in the South.

[00:04:38] So states’ rights is this really weird, unusual kind of category of political power.

[00:04:45] Cathy Hannabach: One of the key themes that you trace across the book is movement, specifically how various populations have been legally, politically, and culturally rendered movable or, conversely, been rendered able to move others.

[00:05:01] Indigenous Removal and enslavement are two key examples of this. What are some of the other key case studies that you analyze in the book of how movement operates in this historical context?

[00:05:14] Katie Walkiewicz: I always struggled with how to think about movement in this text because one of the things that I’m arguing is that we can think about Removal as a way to understand some of those states’ rights I just talked about and also the ways that anti-Indigeneity and anti-Blackness are built into the current structures of the United States.

[00:05:26] When I’m thinking about Removal, I’m thinking about the way that Indigeneity and Blackness are always made to move—through forced migration; through the violent seizure of people of African descent from their Indigenous homelands, communities, and languages; through things like the Trail of Tears. But we can also think about the Great Migration of people of African descent from the so-called US South.

[00:05:52] Some of the other examples of movement that I think about in the text are also the movement to Indian Territory, which we might think of as Oklahoma today, and how that was produced by forced Removal, especially the forced Removal of Indigenous people.

[00:06:15] But I’m also thinking about how Indian Territory served both as a forced Removal for enslaved people of African descent and a potential space of freedom and promise. A place outside of the burn boundaries of the US where Black communities could form their own spaces, kinship networks, and political and economic structures.

[00:06:33] While a lot of the book is thinking about movement as this violent act, I also wanted to think about the possibilities and promises that movement provides. One of the other positive examples of movement I give is to think about migration patterns of non-humans, thinking for example about birds. So those are some of the ways I’m trying to think about movement in the book.

[00:06:51] Removal in particular, capaciously understood, is a really important way for me personally to think about what is shared between Indigenous and Black experiences, because often it can be really challenging to think about the shared relationships between Indigeneity and Blackness rather than the tensions and fractures.

[00:07:15] Cathy Hannabach: You also analyze what happens when Black and Indigenous communities and nations reimagine the very concept of a state in the wake of this history, in the wake of the practice of a state being this violent imposition.

You also are looking at examples of, “Well, what happens if we try to remake the concept of a state?” You trace some really interesting statehood campaigns from the early 1900s that are advocating the creation of a Black state and advocating the creation of a Native-run state.

[00:07:47] What made those Black and Indigenous statehood movements so compelling for their advocates? And I’m also curious, how do you see some of their legacies operating today?

[00:07:56] Katie Walkiewicz: I am from Oklahoma, which is one of the reasons I was especially interested in thinking about the statehood movements there.

[00:08:08] I’m also a citizen of Cherokee Nation, and Cherokee citizens were very involved in the Native-run state, the state of Sequoyah, that was organized in the early 1900s.

I think they understood the power of the state. I mean, going back to some of the things I talked about in the first question, states have enormous power over the day-to-day lives of the people that live within their borders or we could even think of as their territory.

[00:08:31] And so I would say in both cases, both in terms of the Black state and the Indigenous-run state of Sequoyah, those are both speculative projects trying to imagine futures outside the status quo of the United States and trying to imagine spaces of freedom for Black Afro-Native and/or Indigenous people.

[00:08:50] I think that was part of what was so compelling: How can you be legible to the US but have some autonomy as a community?

I think what was more challenging for me, especially in terms of the state of Sequoyah, is that I had always thought of it as this just amazingly fascinating thing. And how could it have not been positive? You had all of these Native leaders trying to organize for something that had an enormous impact on the Constitution for the state of Oklahoma and the way that counties got mapped out after the state of Oklahoma formed.

[00:09:23] But the state of Sequoyah had huge limitations, and this was one of the things I tried to be pretty critical of in the book. The state really doesn’t serve Black and Indigenous communities at the end of the day. In terms of the state of Sequoyah, there was a doubling down on segregation and anti-Blackness in the proposed documents they created.

[00:09:40] That led a lot of the Black leaders from larger cities and communities, but also the so-called all Black towns in Indian Territory, not to align with them, weakening their power and their ability to create the state of Sequoyah. And we see similar critiques of some of the Black statehood movements as well.

[00:09:57] Part of what makes those possible is the forced seizure of Indigenous land through allotment. And so, one of the things I’m really trying to highlight is that in these moments where it seems like the state might be a viable option, it often occurs through a negation of Indigenous and Black sovereignty. In none of these cases does it really work out in terms of creating a state.

[00:10:14] However, I do think that there are still amazing things that do emerge from these movements. You have enormous social organizing, and you get these strong senses of identity and community and belonging that still carry through to today, I would argue.

[00:10:34] Cathy Hannabach: I’m really curious about your reading in the book and maybe beyond the book, what didn’t make it into the book, of the 2020 Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma.

You point out in the book that this decision was, of course, an undeniable win for Indigenous sovereignty. But you also caution us to be wary of its emphasis on policing as well as some of the serious legal challenges that it’s faced in the last three years, including some really important upcoming cases at the time of this recording.

[00:11:05] What do you hope readers of your book come away understanding about the promises and the limitations of McGirt and similar legal decisions about Indigenous sovereignty?

[00:11:15] Katie Walkiewicz: First of all, I was deep in the project by the time McGirt had come up and even the Murphy case before it. I will admit that at the time, I was excited and it felt somewhat validating to see movement in these areas that I had been studying the deep past of on my own, scrolling through microfilm for a while. I think it speaks to the long history that the McGirt decision is addressing.

[00:11:33] So just as a recap, the Supreme Court found in 2020 that the reservation boundaries of the so-called Five Tribes and the Quapaw were not legally dissolved—legally according to the laws of the United States federal government—and so those reservation boundaries had to be reaffirmed.

[00:11:53] This is a huge win in terms of being able to claim sovereignty over our communities and affirmation of our reservation boundaries. However, I wanted to be very careful about this and I really struggled with how to talk about the policing element of it.

[00:12:10] I’m not a lawyer, so there’s that as well. I’m a literary scholar. I work in make-believe. But one of the ways that our tribal communities have been arguing we can be trusted to manage jurisdiction in our communities is through aggressive policing and showing our ability to police successfully.

[00:12:29] I’m made very uncomfortable by this not only because I’m an abolitionist but also because Oklahoma already incarcerates more people than almost any nation in the world. It is a space of extreme incarceration, and one of the things I argue is that this over-incarceration is because of these Indigenous and Black histories that I’m talking about in the book.

[00:12:51] It’s this over-surveillance of Indigenous and Black life in the state of Oklahoma. So, I find it troubling that law enforcement becomes the primary means by which to assert Indigenous sovereignty in this case.

I say that with caution though because it’s also an enormous win and it’s a difficult position that people are placed in by which they have to decide how to negotiate within structures that inherently are built to harm them, like US states or US policing practices.

[00:13:21] That was something that I really wanted to acknowledge and address, but carefully, in the conclusion of my book.

I also really wanted to emphasize the long nineteenth-century histories of the negotiations that created the reservation borders that were affirmed in McGirt. I talk about the Treaties of 1866, and I talk about enslavement in the Five Tribes.

[00:13:43] The Treaties of 1866 were treaties that the Five Tribes had to sign with the US federal government as penance for supporting the Confederacy in the US Civil War. Support for the Confederacy was especially divided and fractious in the Cherokee and Muscogee Nations. While there was official support, it was a very divisive set of battles and combat amongst Cherokee and Muscogee people.

[00:14:10] I think that in some ways, that papers over the complexity of what that war meant for Indian Territory. However, there were practices of anti-Blackness and enslavement in those communities. The Treaties of 1866 demanded that the Five Tribes emancipate all enslaved people and offer them the same rights as other members of their communities.

[00:14:29] I think it’s important to remember some of these longer genealogies of those reservation borders and the traces they have of these very difficult nineteenth-century histories.

I feel very strongly that in order to decolonize, we must foreground Black freedom. I think it’s especially important to be thinking about these long histories when we’re thinking about the possibilities and the potential of a decision like McGirt.

[00:14:57] If McGirt does open up these ways for us to think more capacious about how to assert Indigenous sovereignty, how can we also be attentive to some of the anti-Black histories that are also being brought in with those discussions?

As I was finishing the book, the Castro-Huerta [Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta] case came up. The Brackeen [Haaland v. Brackeen] case will be decided very soon.

[00:15:16] Both cases are pretty clear attempts to erode not only the gains in McGirt but over 200 years of federal Indian policy that I write about in the book. And so, I express my critique of McGirt with caution.

However, I don’t think that the Supreme Court has ever served Indigenous people, truly. I don’t think that the court is ever going to be a site of decolonization.

[00:15:39] That being said, there will likely be huge, devastating, material reverberations if the Brackeen case goes a certain way. And so, it’s very, very messy.

Again, I’m not a legal scholar. I’m a literary scholar, and I’m just really trying to trace and think about some of these histories and discourses that I see coming up in McGirt but that have been part of ongoing debates and discussions in Indian Territory for 200 years.

[00:16:07] Cathy Hannabach: I think that’s a really nice dovetail into my final question, which draws together all of these examples that you trace across the book and that you’ve engaged in different ways across your body of work as a whole, which is re-imagining what some of these histories and some of our present can look like in the future. This is both in terms of building things that have yet to come but also retooling stuff that we already have.

[00:16:33] So in the spirit of imagining otherwise, what is the world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?

[00:16:41] Katie Walkiewicz: I love that question. It’s one that I’m always thinking about, and it was one that was constantly on my mind when writing this book. How can I write something that could potentially serve my community, nourish us, and continue to support the long struggles that people have been fighting for such a long time?

[00:17:01] The world I’m working toward is one in which we can experience, celebrate, and honor Indigenous and Black freedom. And by freedom, I’m really thinking of the ways that Black and Indigenous feminist scholars have thought about freedom: the celebration of Indigenous and Black life.

I want a world where we don’t have to constantly be talking about these Supreme Court cases that attempt to erode Indigenous sovereignty.

[00:17:26] One of the things I was trying to think about in this book is: What are some of the lessons that our ancestors and people who came before us have given to us about the strategies that they’ve tried?

I want a world where we’re trying to think beyond the nation-state and beyond the state to other kinds of political organizing.

[00:17:46] In this, I’m thinking about the strategic speculative thinking of someone like J. Kēhaulani Kauanui or Joanne Barker. I’ve also been really inspired by Sylvia Wynter in trying to think about how we can get out of some of these Enlightenment, liberal logics of political categories and identity.

[00:18:04] Cathy Hannabach: Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of these ways that you imagine otherwise.

[00:18:10] Katie Walkiewicz: Oh, thank you so much. It was such a joy to talk with you.

[00:18:14] Cathy Hannabach: Thanks for joining me for this episode of Imagine Otherwise. A big thanks to Katie as well for being here and for sharing their research.

[00:18:22] You can learn more about Katie’s book, Reading Territory, and the other projects that they’re working on on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you’ll also find a teaching guide for this episode as well as related books and resources.

[00:18:36] This episode was produced and edited by me, Cathy Hannabach.

[00:18:40] Want to support Imagine Otherwise? We would love it if you would share this episode with a friend or consider teaching it in your classroom.

[00:18:47] You can also subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts.

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