Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Editor-in-Chief's Note

SPECIAL FORUM: American Territorialities

Borderwaters: Archipelagic Geometries between Indonesia and the United States

Generally speaking, the border/borderlands complex has oriented itself around interactions between the border as a one-dimensional Euclidean line and the borderlands’ set of contestations growing out of cultural currents that exceed the state’s superimposed Euclidean geometry/geography. In complement and contradistinction, this essay advances a borderwaters framework as interlinked with governmentality’s engagement in and with modes of non-Euclidean spatial perception, in which the state’s imagination of borders has not been the evocation of, in Gloria Anzaldúa’s term, an “unnatural boundary” but has rather been a partial function of the geological and hydrological materialities and processes to which governmentality has tended to affix water-based and water-dependent borders. These water-dependent and natural-cultural borders (with their attendant notions of human sovereignty) are intertwined with an arena of borderwaters where nonhuman actants (currents, waves, shorelines, and nonhuman animals) play roles in establishing how human borders will attain perception. In outlining some of the dynamics of the borderwaters, this essay turns toward the oceanic and archipelagic work of the Greater Mexican visual artist Miguel Covarrubias, whose midcentury representations of Indonesia and the United States’s Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands help contextualize and theorize state, Indigenous, and nonhuman cultures as they have converged and diverged across non-Euclidean modes of imagining boundaries, nonboundaries, and spatial area on a terraqueous planet.

‘Pando/Pando’ Across the Americas: Transnational Settler Territorialities and Decolonial Pluralities

In Allison Hedge Coke’s 2015 poem “Pando/Pando,” Pando is, in one instance, the site of a 2008 massacre in Bolivia, in which thirteen Evo Morales supporters, many Indigenous, were killed by a militia backed by a US-supported right-wing opposition. While this support clearly illustrates the longstanding exertion of US influence over Latin American countries, it also moves across related sites of settler territorialities to reaffirm in Bolivia the structures of racialized hierarchization and Indigenous elimination as the very grounds of sociopolitical legitimacy and normativity through which the US controls its own “domestic” political space. This essay wants to show how Hedge Coke’s poem engages with this transnational production of settler territorialities while redefining the linkage between the two sites as a decolonial crossing. For, secondly, “Pando” refers to a giant clonal colony in present-day Utah: a forest-sized tree and the “largest living organism on earth.” The poem links this form of Indigenous growth at a site of colonial violence via “Pando” to Morales and the Indigenous political movement he signifies. As it connects these different forms of Indigenous (political) life through their rootedness within their specific lands, the poem works to disrupt the normativity of any territorial settler claim. Beyond the limited settler state conceptions of politics as a centralized project of hierarchization, “Pando/Pando” envisions instead a multiscalar structure of relationships as the normative principle of sociopolitical formation, in which transnational settler colonial connections are redrawn as decolonial pluralities of Indigenous territorialities and dimensions of political life.

Cartographies of the Self: Indigenous Territoriality and Literary Sovereignty in Contemporary Native American Life Writing

This contribution sets out to show how contemporary Indigenous autobiographers critically counter hegemonic territorial inscriptions of “America” and American citizenship and explore alternatives that often connect to but are not identical with tribal–nationalist notions of territoriality in their insistence on sovereignty. In the context of Indigenous life writing, this contribution suggests, “territoriality“ can be broadly understood as a land-based and transgenerational relationality; the Indigenous authors whose autobiographical work is discussed in detail—N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich—engage with territoriality as a category of selfhood by way of a self-reflexive storytelling that draws its authority from reference to earlier storytelling and to storytelling conventions, but also from its orientation towards an individual and collective Indigenous future.

The Banality of American Empire: The Curious Case of Guam, USA

The title of a 2004 New York Times article sums up well the curious political existence of the island of Guam: “Looking for friendly base overseas, Pentagon finds it already has one.” Guam is known as the “tip of America’s spear” and has for more than a century played a crucial role in securing US strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Guam is also one of seventeen remaining colonies in the world, as recognized by the United Nations, in need of decolonization. In media representations and critical discourse around US imperialism, Guam also occupies a curious space, where it is a US military colony that somehow does not represent colonialism or imperialism. This essay will use the concept of banality to interrogate how this simultaneous fullness of Guam as a site for American military power, and its emptiness as a site for American critique, enable the US to project force largely unchallenged over a significant part of the globe.

‘We’d rather eat rocks’: Contesting the Thirty Meter Telescope in a Struggle over Science and Sovereignty in Hawai‘i

The selection of the sacred summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi as the site for a Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) inaugurated a surge in activism against desecration of the mountain, particularly following a TMT groundbreaking ceremony in October 2014. Drawing on fieldwork I conducted immediately preceding and following the groundbreaking, I argue that the protectors in these initial years of protection were theorizing an Indigenous future that can be seen unfolding in the immediate present. The accumulated tensions between the state’s parameters for recognition and the existence of Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) people and practice results in a dangerous dichotomy between Hawaiian knowledges and Western science that delegitimizes the former, so that Kānaka Maoli protecting Mauna Kea from the Thirty Meter Telescope are framed as antiscience, rather than anti-occupation. In response to the state’s disavowal of settler colonialism through the denial of Kanaka knowledges, Kanaka protection of Mauna Kea asserts itself as an anti-occupation reclamation of not just sovereign territory, but also of Kanaka ontologies. This combination demonstrates the mutually constituted nature of science, the sacred, and sovereignty under a Kanaka worldview. Kānaka Maoli position the struggle as a part of an ongoing sovereignty movement to assert continuities between their historical, contemporary, and emergent claims to land and knowledge.

  • 4 supplemental images

Quiet Empire and Slippery Geography: Puerto Rico as Nonsovereign Territory

This essay addresses sociospatial asymmetries configured into the status of nonsovereign island territories. It examines the roles of discourses as legal substructures for policies with clear economic and racial impacts. It also looks at the flexible ways location has been used by national courts, the executive branch, and US Congress to justify differential applications of rights toward island-based citizens. Slippery definitions of incorporation help ensure a nontransferability of national rights and a transferable system of cost-bearing and debt. The essay argues that neoimperialism was the realpolitik that gave logic to the territorial acquisition of Puerto Rico. It discusses diaspora, monocultural production, environmental vulnerability, and locational citizenship in the context of the US Insular Cases, beginning in 1901. By coding islands as suspended spaces from the metropole, quiet colonialism operates through obfuscation. It does not nest in any clear geographic form or authority, but instead works through laws, logistics and installations that are zoned at the crossroads of the foreign and domestic.

‘Neither citizen nor alien’: Migration, Territoriality, and Malfunctioning Empire in the US Virgin Islands

In 1924, Leander Holder, an Afro-Danish housewife living in New York City, attempted to buy a steamship ticket home after a visit to the US Virgin Islands. The steamship company refused to sell her passage, arguing that she lacked the needed documents to prove her American citizenship. The snafu sent a flurry of letters, cables, and memos circulating through the islands–mainland circuit. As Virgin Islands activists, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), federal officials, and Holder’s family became embroiled in a debate over how she might return to the mainland, their conundrum became indicative of how migrating imperial subjects revealed the reach and limits of American power. This article considers Holder’s predicament through the lens of territoriality and migration to reveal the deficiencies of not only America’s territorial regime but also how the movements of ordinary women and men across, to, and from imperial spaces lay bare the way empire exerts power through incoherence. Opening with the facts of the case, the article then explores how rapid changes in conceptions of territoriality and citizenship influenced its events. It then considers migration as the key malfunction point in the increasingly racialized context of American empire in the early twentieth century. The article ends by examining the ways that Holder’s story speaks to the function of dysfunction in the history of American empire, a migrant’s ability to disrupt empire’s assumed efficiency, and the ways empire wields power even as its judicial congruency fails, its bureaucracies bicker, and its processes malfunction.

North American Counterterritoriality: Nineteenth-Century Black Activism and Alternative Legal Spatiality

This contribution uses the terms “territoriality” and “legal spatiality” to consider how they shape our understanding of the significance of the North American border between the US and Canada (British North America) in the nineteenth century. It looks, first, at the ways in which Black intellectual leaders constructed Upper Canada as a counterterritory to the United States in the context of debating Black emigration by combining politics and geography to challenge conflicting territorialities. Canada’s ambiguous position as a safe haven under the British lion’s paw that was formerly invested in slavery and the slave trade is reinforced, second, by the increasing numbers of black fugitives onto its territories. This perceived mass exodus provoked aggressive reactions from US slaveholders who relied on the fugitive slave laws to lay claims on their “property” in the form of fugitive slave extradition cases. The activism by Black communities along the border that emerged from the crises to save fugitives from being returned to bondage, this contribution shows, enacted a form of counterterritoriality that called on the British imperial center to challenge the legality of slavery, introducing alternative forms of “legal spatiality.”

Afterword: What’s Law Got to Do With It?

Afterword for the Special Forum on American Territorialities

Afterword: Militant Territoriality

Afterword for the Special Forum on American Territorialities