World Languages and Cultures
Journal or Book Title
As a concept, the nation is maddeningly difficult to define. Like “spirit” or “health”, the term “nation” encompasses a multiplicity of meanings that shift depending on the context. John Carlos Rowe has argued that the “...use of the word national ...refers to a complex and irreducible array of discourses, institutions, policies, and practices which, even if they are in flux or in competition with other structures and allegiances, cannot be easily wished away.”[i] Despite its fluid and constructed nature, the nation is nevertheless quite real and has had, since its inception, power to order the world.[ii] Because the word has such a multiplicity of meanings, I use the term in a broad sense, to refer to a collectivity with political autonomy recognized by others outside of the scope of its influence. Exploring exactly how Native peoples understood their own collective sociopolitical organization sheds light on the multiple and often contradictory understandings that Europeans and Americans developed to define Native nations and the ambiguous actions government officials often took in relation to them.[iii] Euro-Americans recognized that Native people organized themselves as coherent political entities but interpreted these collectivities through Western political constructions.
[i] John Carlos Rowe, ed., Post-nationalist American Studies (Berkley: University of California Press, 2000) 2.
[ii] To understand the power of the concept of the nation to order social, political, geographic, and cultural organization, see Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1983).
[iii] I will use the term “American” throughout to refer to a person who identifies him or herself with the political entity of the United States, accepting membership in the nation regardless of race or heritage. Although I employ this term, I recognize that historically the term “American” can sometimes become a monolithic reference that either subsumes or erases the existence of neighboring nations, such as Mexico and Canada. I have chosen the term “American” for its ease of use and employ it in a very specific sense. The term, as I use it, refers to all people who imagine themselves to be a part of what Benedict Anderson terms the deep, horizontal comradeship of the nation. See Anderson, Imagined Communities. I am not simply talking about people whom the United States recognizes as citizens, but all people who claim membership in the nation. At a certain point in history, American Indian people also become Americans in the way that I use the term. However, American Indian membership and citizenship in the United States is complicated by their continuing membership and citizenship in their own nations.
Gish Hill, Christina, "Kinship as an Assertion of Sovereign Native Nationhood" (2013). World Languages and Cultures Publications. 152.