The Question of Guilt

In many of my classes at Bryn Mawr, I have devoted the opportunity for independent  research to projects one could probably argue fell under the disciplinary domain of “Native Studies,” or “American Indian Studies,” or “Indigenous Studies.” As an “American Studies” major, I naturally hate America. Since declaring, I’ve discovered I’m not alone. It’s so common, it seems practically a requirement of scholars in the field. But all not-really-joking joking aside, I think it would be quite a challenge to really study this place and not struggle regularly with feelings of contempt and guilt.

Guilt is the particularly interesting emotion to me out of that feelings stew. Having sort of defunct-concentrated in Native studies, much of my academic interest concerns the discursive role of native peoples, cultures, languages, and land within a larger American narrative. And a lot of the time I find myself making the same general analysis. I tend to attribute a lot of weird America stuff to anxiety/guilt over the fact that we’re all constantly squatting on stolen land.

I should probably define “America stuff” better. Well, I’ll back up. Over the past year,  and especially in this, my last semester of college, I’ve been increasingly drawn the analyses that pivot on the instability of oppressive institutions. Like patriarchy for example, masculinity literally touches a purse, the color pink, too pale a shade of blue, or a penis and it’s toast. Masculinity is defined in opposition to femininity, a facture that makes it an inherently weak, fragile construction. It’s the same with Racism, and any corner-store marxist analysis of capitalism will say the same thing. It’s all going to collapse, we’re headed for profound crisis and doom.

Recently, though, I’ve begun thinking of settler-colonialism in the same way. Non-native America’s claim to this space is so tentative and so constantly threatened by the reminder of native existence. And I’ve found that a lot of the time when nativeness turns up in some way or another, what’s accompanying it is that guilt. In the book Playing Indian, for example, the author, Philip Deloria, suggests that white Americas obsession with dressing up in native regalia, with attending weirdly native-themed summer camps, all those way that, as he argues, white Americans pass through the native body are strategies of feeling entitled and connected to the stolen land they occupy. I’ve  found I can apply this analysis to anything. Any time there’s a discursive American Indian around, I can pull out my white-guilt tool box and say that the bizarre way white people are incorporating native people into their narrative is so bizarre because of the inherently unstable framework of settler-colonialism.

I haven’t even really started yet, but I’m know I’m concluding the same old thing for this project too.  Sure, it’s more complicated, but on a very basic, fundamental level, the special space that archaeology holds in the American imagination is also a fundamentally haunted space, a space literally consisting of Indian Burial grounds, and thus also a space of a narrative acrobatics. Archaeological ruins or American Indian civilization are threatening to the U.S. in a myriad of ways, so the only strategy is to absorb and re-narrate those sites and artifacts in a way that reifies, rather than threaten, white futurity–continued prosperous occupation of stolen land. It feels important that some of the most haunted discourses are the most central to the collective American identity. In her book, The National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects, Renee Bergland cites a the distribution of a poem entitled “Lines Occasioned by a visit to an old Indian Burying Ground” as an early source of binding nationalist sentiment, by way of a Benedict-Anderson-imagined-communities-and-simultaneous-consumption-of-the-same-media-in-disparate places-produces-the-feeling-of-national-belonging analysis. Under this reading, an Indian grave is one of the first collective national narratives of the United States. I can only assume that this is a keep-your-enemies-closer make sure you’ve got the trickiest stuff figured out first phenomena, in that major points of instability in the narrative formation of American identity are also the most central and essential plots of national common ground. After all, I suppose, we all watched Pocahontas. (except me until much later, but that’s completely different story).

And I guess that’s what brings me to what I thought would be the point of this post. Is it guilt? Or do I just hope it is? It’s definitely an anxious feeling and it comes from what I am asserting to be the fundamental fragility of the U.S. occupation. But maybe I’m the only one feeling guilty. I talk a lot about collective guilt over native genocide forming and important core of the narrative, collective American identity. That is, I ague that myself and others are encouraged to incorporate a certain amount of regret into their own personal understanding of United States history. It’s important to note that when I make this argument, I’m not asserting that the guilt is productive–in fact, quite the opposite–I think  that the guilt too is ultimately a tool of continued oppression. It a) encourages white Americans to think of Native people as extinct and b) encourages white Americans to feel good about their social, political, and historical awareness.

But now I’m wondering if that analysis is even particularly apt. Sure, some people feel guilt. I certainly do and I was certainly raised to in my middle-class liberal family. But maybe what I’m seeing in these moments of anxiety over the inherent instability of illegitimate occupation is exactly the opposite of guilt. Maybe it’s just pure entitlement encountering a small barrier and finding an outlet or a resolution for the disappointment at not having access to absolutely 100% of what one wants.

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