‘Mohawk Interruptus’ by Audra Simpson

Audra Simpson. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States. 280pp., 4 illus., app., notes, refs., index. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. $89.95 (cloth), $24.95 (paperback)

Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of the Settler States (2014) explores the complexities of Mohawk sovereignty along the U.S.-Canadian border offering critical insights into the fraught past and present relationships between Indigenous and settler societies. Focusing on Kahnawà:ke, a Mohawk Indian reserve located in present-day Canada with ties to the Iroquois Confederacy whose territories interrupt the current settler-colonial nation-state border, Simpson begins her inquiry with three interdigitating claims that reemerge throughout the book. First, Simpson challenges readers to see that a sovereign entity can exist within another (10). This “nested” conception of sovereignty compels us to recognize that when Indigenous political orders prevail in the present, they do so, seemingly paradoxically, “within and apart from settler governance” (11). Second, Simpson offers a critique of the dominant and narrow politics of recognition that confines Indigenous peoples and their rights to essentialized and discernable forms of cultural difference (11, 20). Throughout the book, we see cases in which Mohawk peoples “refuse” this paradigm and the inherent power asymmetries that it works to reproduce and naturalize.

Importantly, refusal has multiple meanings in Mohawk Interruptus, which leads to Simpson’s third claim. Just as refusal points to the everyday acts of Indigenous peoples, refusal also refers to a scholarly mode of inquiry and analysis. This “ethnographic refusal,” Simpson explains, is an anthropological methodology that “acknowledges the asymmetrical power relations that inform the research and writing about native lives and politics” and in turn refuses to write in a way that might compromise hard won and always precarious tribal sovereignty (104-105). In the processing of fleshing out these three claims, Simpson moves through equally challenging, intertwined discussions of settler colonialism, the history of anthropology, borders, and membership.

In chapter one, Simpson introduces a series of what she calls “signposts”—ethnographic moments that reveal the variable ways in which histories of settler colonialism have shaped understandings of membership and belonging within Mohawk communities and how Mohawk peoples have challenged such understandings. Signposts include the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke’s eviction of non-Native residents from the reserve who had been cohabiting with members and the Iroquois National Lacrosse Teams’ decision to use their Haudenosaunee passports to travel to a competition in the United Kingdom despite the government’s refusal to recognize such documents (13, 25). These signposts, Simpson suggests, point to the “fundamentally interrupted and interruptive capacity” of Indigenous life and sovereignty in settler society (33).

In chapter two, Simpson illustrates how a history of territorial dispossession encapsulated in legislative acts like the Canadian Indian Act of 1890, the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway canal in 1957, and the implementation of a blood quantum membership code (by way of Bill C-31 in 1985) have shaped how Mohawk peoples understand themselves as well as their relationships with each other and the outside world (50-56, 63-64). The chapter opens with an interview Simpson conducted with a Kahnawà:ke man who she gives the pseudonym “Richard.” It is a difficult section as Simpson openly acknowledges her own suspicions of Richard’s claims to Kahnawà:ke membership spurred by his inability to place himself within a clearly demarcated local genealogy. Though she acknowledges his role in cultural revival practices of the 1970s, Simpson admits to herself “the answers he is giving me are simply not ‘right.’ They make it impossible for me to place him” (38). Rather than disqualifying Richard as an interlocutor, Simpson uses this ethnographic impasse as a point of departure: “Why was this exchange so puzzling? Perhaps because a very complicated story has been simplified through history” (38). Simpson handles the account with care noting, “My point is not to challenge this interlocutor’s truth claim but to point out the way in which the narrative he provides highlights the very problem of settler colonialism, of fragmentation, of doubt” (64).

Chapter three turns to questions of disciplinary formation and its relationship to ongoing histories of settler coloniality. Beginning with the ethnographic collaboration between Lewis Henry Morgan and Ely Parker, Simpson looks at the formation of, what she terms, the “Iroquois canon”—a “regulatory body of knowledge” manifested in the form of anthropological (and historical) monographs that have constructed Kahnawà:ke as a place of cultural degeneration and loss (70, 93). The implications of this delineation of the Iroquois canon bleed into chapter four as Simpson reminds readers that “concepts have teeth” and these teeth “bite through time” in a way that moves “colonies into nation-states” (100). It is here that Simpson expands upon her methodology of refusal, which turns the analytical focus toward the ways in which “historical processes”—such as settler colonialism—have structured anthropological engagements with Native peoples and everyday acts of refusal that might otherwise appear irrational or illiberal (112-114). It is in this sense that ethnographic refusal is both ethical and “theoretically generative” (113).

With this history of dispossession and scholarly complicity in mind, Simpson takes readers to the frontlines of Mohawk refusal. In chapter 5, Simpson shows how the sovereign status of Kahnawà:ke, formalized in the Jay Treaty of 1794, is continuously erased by the U.S. and Canada. This can be seen both through anecdotes of Mohawks at border patrol checkpoints and through a much-publicized controversy regarding cigarette corporations moving products through the Kahnawà:ke reserve in order to avoid taxes in Canada. Indigenous people who participated in the movement of cigarettes were portrayed in the media as “smugglers” hiding their illicit activities under the guise of “Native Sovereignty” (124, 129). In both these everyday and juridical encounters, what settler authorities fail to realize is that Mohawk peoples are asserting a sovereign right to cross that predates Canada and the U.S. Moreover, when Mohawk peoples invoke their right to cross through documents like the Jay Treaty, they are neither subsuming themselves under settler-colonial authority nor ignoring settler sovereignty (116). Rather, they are forcing settler polities to come to terms with that which they actively try to forget: that sovereignties are nested, that settler sovereignty is historical (as opposed to natural), and, therefore, that settler sovereignty is subject to change (143).

In chapter 6, Simpson explores the ways in which Mohawk peoples articulate nationhood and citizenship under the onslaught of dispossession. Using the Oka Crisis of 1990 as a point of departure, Simpson shows how this armed resistance to land appropriation marks a moment in which Indigenous peoples simultaneously call the authority of settler-colonial nation-states into question and assert an “alternative, Indigenous citizenship” that draws upon “local forms of knowledge and experience” (159). As Simpson notes, Mohawk women played a particularly vital role in the Oka Crisis even as they were facing a gendered disenrollment process backed by the band councils. This is because Mohawk peoples enact an alternative form of belonging on the “ground level,” what Simpson calls “feeling citizenship” (173). This feeling citizenship is imbricated in webs of kin relations that pose an alternative to state recognized tribal membership (173-74, 189). As a move away from the normative politics of recognition, feeling citizenship enables “unfolding, undetermined possibilities” for Native peoples (176). Simpson highlights the importance of this insight in her conclusion where she describes a contemporary moment in which “‘recognition’ and ‘reconciliation’ appear to be the only options on the table, false choices if ever there were some” (193). As the previous chapters illustrate, Indigenous peoples are seeking out and developing possibilities that exceed and challenge such a false choice. Simpson’s book is an attempt to endow scholars with the means to study these practices in light of the longue durée of colonialism and the ongoing process of settler colonialism.

There is much to be admired in Mohawk Interruptus. Simpson’s ability to weave together issues of territorial dispossession, boundary (un)making, membership, and sovereignty is impressive and timely in the wake of the attempted construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea. More specifically, chapter four brings much needed attention to the underexplored interface between Indigenous studies and borderland studies (typically dominated by Chicano Studies in the U.S.). Simpson highlights the need to foreground Indigenous communities in our analyses of border making. No doubt, it is novel and pertinent contributions like this that have garnered the book accolades from such organizations as the American Anthropological Association, American Ethnological Society, American Studies Association, and Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.

One area of potential expansion is Simpson’s highly intriguing discussion of ethnographic refusal. This could be facilitated through an engagement with the vast body of literature on anthropological critique and the history of anthropology. Such an engagement might help readers understand the difference between ethnographic refusal as described by Simpson and prior reflexive critiques of the 1980s.[1] Recent attempts to re-evaluate received narratives of the history of anthropology in North America and its supposed ignorance of colonialism might suggest that the decolonial stance Simpson is working to cultivate has its own precursors in figures such as Sol Tax and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown.[2] Failure to interrogate these “invisible genealogies”[3] can lead us to view anthropology’s history as a series of progress paradigms with each new addition replacing an outmoded predecessor and thereby imply “a self-congratulatory assumption of our present state.”[4] Read in relation to these literatures, Mohawk Interruptus can be seen as offering a continuation of an anthropological tradition that actively addresses the colonial conditions in which Indigenous peoples are apprehended as ethnographic subjects.

In so many ways, Audra Simpson has written an incredibly thought-provoking and challenging book that should interest those working at the cross-sections of anthropology, history, Indigenous studies, border studies, and settler colonial studies. It is too often these fields talk past each other; Mohawk Interruptus reveals the ways in which they are inextricably linked and the imminent need to acknowledge such linkages.

[1] See, for example: James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988); Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983); George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

[2] See, for example: Michael Asch, “Radcliffe-Brown on Colonialism in Australia,” Histories of Anthropology Annual 5 (2009): 152–65; Michael Asch, “Anthropology, Colonialism and the Reflexive Turn: Finding a Place to Stand,” Anthropologica 57, no. 2 (2015): 481–89; Joshua J. Smith, “Standing with Sol: The Spirit and Intent of Action Anthropology,” Anthropologica 57 (2015): 445–56.

[3] Regna Darnell, Invisible Genealogies: A History of Americanist Anthropology (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001).

[4] Bhrigupati Singh and Jane I. Guyer, “A Joyful History of Anthropology,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6, no. 2 (2016): 197–211.

Nicholas Barron: contributions / website / nbarron@unm.edu


  1. Thanks for this clear and helpful review.

  2. A major problem with Simpson’s (otherwise rather interesting) book is that she makes broad generalizations about the Six Nations on the bases of a single (!) case of the Mohawks and actually one specific (!) group of Mohawks. To this reader the work seems too big on theory and somewhat thin on ethnographic data…Several Native American colleagues of mine have pointed this out too.

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