Registers of Indigeneity

CSSH has a longstanding tradition of juxtaposing essays for comparative effect. Our readers enjoy this ritual, but we often wonder what our authors think of it. Under the Rubric gives CSSH authors a chance to respond directly to each other’s work, drawing additional insight and inspiration from their arguments.


Uditi Sen, Developing Terra Nullius: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Indigeneity in the Andaman Islands

Krista Maxwell, Settler-Humanitarianism: Healing the Indigenous Child-Victim


The Indigenous exists at multiple levels: in the historical embedding of a people with a given landsite and ecosystem most obviously, but also in language, politics, religion, and a lived experience of separateness from settler-states and their progeny. Still, Indigenous peoples’ survival depends in key respects on settler-states and their diverse codes and degrees of recognition. Essays by Uditi Sen and Krista Maxwell each explore registers of recognition that, though applied to dispossess indigenous peoples’ of autonomy, were presented as liberal or humanitarian interventions: the construct of “empty land,” or terra nullius, in Sen’s contribution; and the construct of the Indigenous “child-victim,” in Maxwell’s.


Sen considers how the Andaman Islands shifted from a putative penal colony to a sacred and redemptive space of Indian nationalism and heritage, complete with Indigenous “reserves” for the Jarawas after Indian independence in 1947. Yet this version of settler colonialism masqueraded as the development of “backward” land, and the “protection of the aboriginal,” yielding insidious new acronyms, from PTGs—“primitive tribal groups”—to PVTGs—“particularly vulnerable tribal groups.” Sen shows how the casting of indigenous Andaman Islanders in this role was indelibly imprinted with depictions of geographic emptiness.


Maxwell explores the oscillations between contempt for Indigenous dissidents in Canada like the Mohawk and (performatively) heartfelt sympathy for the Indigenous child-victim. Bridging them is a public policy of “Aboriginal healing” crafted by the state to address the historical trauma caused by the Canadian residential school system, which mirrored Australia in its child-removal interventions. Why, Maxwell poignantly asks, is the Indigenous child-victim, whether past or present, such a convenient foil for the public cultures of settler states? She answers that such performances of “settler-humanitarianism,” “settler-sympathy,” and “reconciliation” coopt practices of actual Indigenous healing, disfiguring them to mask historical processes of domination. In this new version of dispossession, moreover, actual Indigenous children are neutralized in their rightful capacity as social actors.


CSSH: Your essays each examine legal and social processes through which nation-states have depicted Indigenous groups as requiring state governance, intervention, and protection while simultaneously dispossessing and displacing them. Having read each other’s arguments, do you see any analytical patterns emerging from the two essays? Does reading your essays side by side, or “under the rubric,” suggest any new perspectives on your own research?

MAXWELL: Reading Uditi’s paper was my first exposure to the fascinating idea of India as a postcolonial settler-state. The unexpectedness of this analysis reminds me of how, conversely, many Canadians insist on describing our evidently settler-colonial nation as “postcolonial,” conveniently disregarding that the settlers never left and colonial relations with Indigenous peoples continue.

I am struck by the possibilities for comparative analysis of these two nascent states, both emerging from the ashes of the British Empire, each crafting their own distinct interventions aimed at eliminating indigenous peoples in the pursuit of national wealth and the mantle of modernity.

For one approach, I am interested in thinking more about how your astute analysis of terra nullius as a “de facto practice” of settler governance, justified by settler refusals to recognize Indigenous political and social systems and ownership of territory as such, could also apply in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Canadian contexts, where the Royal Proclamation of 1763 meant that terra nullius was not legally enshrined.

Another strand of your analysis that I find particularly helpful is your nuanced attention to the mutually reinforcing roles of “protection” and “development” practices of aggressive state-led settlement and territorial appropriation: how state paternalism (would you characterize it as humanitarianism?) has directly enabled settler exploitation of indigenous resources and peoples in the Andaman Islands. My paper is focused more narrowly on settler protection of indigenous child victims, but I see these explicit connections that you so effectively make—between welfare interventions and economic development/territorial appropriation/natural resource exploitation—as crucial for understanding the interdependent workings of settler governance, political economy, and settler-humanitarianism. I touch on this relationship in my discussion of the resurgence of settler-humanitarianism as neoliberal statecraft, drawing heavily on the Australian Northern Territory intervention literature, but reading your essay bolsters my interest in attending more closely to how Indigenous child-protection interventions in Canada articulate with economic development.

Beyond settler exploitation of indigenous territory and forest resources in the Andaman Islands, you show how Indian settlers’ interpersonal exploitation of indigenous people is enabled by state paternalism and containment. I found your account of the exploitation of the Jarawa as human exhibits in tourist “safaris” organized by settlers from the 1990s disturbingly reminiscent of the nineteenth-century European ethnological “human zoos” which exhibited thousands of Indigenous people from North America and around the world. Further, you gesture toward settlers’ sexual exploitation of Jarawa girls and women, likely also facilitated by state agents. In Canada, such accounts of contemporary interpersonal exploitation of Indigenous people have provoked further settler-humanitarian interventions. I wonder whether you would analyze responses by Survival International and domestic NGOs in these terms. Are there any signs of Indian state actors taking up humanitarian discourse as a political tactic toward crafting new modes of dominance over Jarawa lives?

SEN: When reading Krista’s paper I immediately noticed the similarity in our approaches to mapping the manifestations of settler governance, despite starkly different contexts, histories, and historiographies. Both of our papers privilege Patrick Wolfe’s understanding of indigenous elimination as an “organizing principle” and not as an “event,” a perspective that allows one to map the contradictions and ironies of settler power. I was struck by your use of an analytical lens that mapped the continuities and discontinuities in how settler-state formation has been scripted on the body of the indigenous child-victim during the nineteenth century and during the postcolonial period. This historicizing was particularly useful in revealing the contradictions inherent in current practices of presumed “benevolence.” I found your argument regarding how settler interventions to “save” the indigenous child can morph into neoliberal discourses of “healing” in Canada fascinating and resonant with how imperial projects of claiming terra nullius have morphed into postcolonial projects of developing empty land in the Andamans. Read together, I think the two papers make a compelling case for the importance of careful investigation into the historical genealogies of state policy as a crucial aspect of understanding its actual intent and impacts on indigenous life.

This brings me to a complicated question regarding the efficacy and even possibility of Indigenous agency and welfare within settler-states and power-structures. Compared to the situation in the Andaman Islands, where the Jarawa community is yet to have a political voice or an organization that can be legible within structures of governance, indigenous communities in Canada have elevated their own leaders and have been able to represent their own grievances and articulate an oppositional, anti-colonial Indigenous ontology. Comparatively, the situation appears to be quite regressive in the Andaman Islands, where mostly non-indigenous activists, NGOs, environmentalists, and even “concerned settlers” debate which policies for settler-colonial practices will lead the Jarawas down a more progressive path. This contrast has naturally led several scholars of South Asia who have engaged with “tribal policy” or indigenous rights in India to argue that a more progressive way forward would have to at least include genuine consultations with the Jarawas or to be informed by Jarawa leadership.

MAXWELL: I think you have summed up one of the most analytically significant contrasts between these two contexts. Indigenous peoples in Canada have a long history of political organizing in opposition to the settler-state. The irony, of course, is that the “legibility” of their political discourses is in part the result of generations of participation in missionary- and state-sponsored formal education, as well as “community development” interventions since the 1960s. In contrast, the Jarawa seem to have thus far avoided such aggressive assimilationist interventions, which presumably has led to low levels of literacy in dominant political registers and created particular challenges for aspiring allies wishing to avoid paternalistic modes of engagement. Perhaps this is precisely where heightened consciousness of humanitarianism as central to settler-colonial governance may help to navigate such pitfalls, and inspire creative ways of working in relation with, rather than simply on behalf of, the Jarawa.

SEN: Yet, your paper points out the irony that even policies that are co-constituted by indigenous leaders can perpetuate settler violence masked in a language of individualized “healing” and benevolence. You argue that indigenous leaders were strategically savvy in choosing to buy into a discourse of individualized trauma and healing, largely because within neoliberalism this promised to be the most effective way of extracting payments from the state. At the same time, you demonstrate how these payments were contingent upon re-traumatizing indigenous survivors, which unleashed a wave of “elimination” through suicides. I wonder how one can think through and resolve this tension. Are indigenous welfare and effective anti-colonial agency possible within settler-states? Are there other examples of such possibilities, where, to borrow from Audre Lorde, the master’s tools have indeed dismantled the master’s house?

MAXWELL: I don’t see any easy resolution to the tension you describe, but neither do I mean to suggest that indigenous political organizing is futile. Much of my work has focused on developing critiques of Canadian settler colonialism, but I appreciate critiques leveled at settler-colonial studies by some indigenous studies scholars, that such scholarship risks obscuring attention to the complexity of past and present indigenous experience. I have learned a great deal by reading the work of indigenous historians such as Philip Deloria and Mary Jane McCallum, who highlight indigenous modernities. As McCallum notes, “It is always easier for historians to find proof of absence than of presence when it comes to Native people.” I have found it productive to think about the welfare state as simultaneously central to twentieth- and twenty-first-century settler-colonial governance and an important substrate that indigenous political actors have drawn on to advance sovereignty struggles and adapt and promote indigenous ontologies. As I signal toward the end of my paper, I am particularly inspired by the work of contemporary scholars and activists who are continuing the work of earlier indigenous feminists by insisting on the interdependence of territory-based sovereignty struggles and action to address gendered and interpersonal violence. I am hopeful that the breadth and rigor of these analyses may render them less vulnerable to state co-option than are claims focused more narrowly on individual well-being.

SEN: Shifting to the settler-state, you convincingly demonstrate how the body of the child-victim and policies of reform or healing have been a primary site for the construction and reconstruction of the settler-state. This argument made me wonder if the same can be said of the “primitive tribes” in the Indian context. I would like to think through how their disenfranchisement and domination can be read not only as settler violence, but also as a key site for the construction of the developmental state in India. Moreover, attributing a “child-like” simplicity to tribal communities is a popular cultural trope in India, albeit one unexplored in my paper. I would like to think much more about how the discourse of “childhood” informs tribal policy and enables settler-colonial practices in the Indian context.

Last but not the least I found your nuanced development of the concept of “settler-humanitarianism” compelling. This concept can indeed illuminate the current debates and controversies over the “fate” of the Jarawas. This debate has included a Public Interest Litigation filed by a concerned settler regarding inadequate state attention to “Jarawa welfare.” Here, “welfare” stood for assimilative and civilizing practices. Domestic NGOs and Survival International primarily advocate for the autonomy of the Jarawa rather than for their cultural assimilation. However, the organizations’ primary means of doing so is to preserve the sanctity of the Jarawa Tribal Reserve. My research maps out how fighting for a “Jarawa Reserve” actually continues settler-colonial forms of domination. However, state-led humanitarianism has mainly taken the form of medical intervention in Jarawa lives, and this is an area where the concept of “settler-humanitarianism” might be especially useful. I hope to explore this in future research.

CSSH: The perspectives that you offer on each other’s work and the connections you identify in your responses are fascinating and offer a new layer of analysis. This is exactly the kind of conversation CSSH hopes to promote under its rubrics and beyond. We hope your exchange will inspire our readers to reflect on the connections they see between your work and their own, and to look for new connections in perhaps unexpected places. Do you have any parting words of advice for our readers, or suggestions for other work that you would like them to consider as they engage with your essays?

MAXWELL: Given that both our papers relied heavily on Patrick Wolfe’s theorization of settler colonialism, and in light of our conversation above about indigenous agency, some readers will likely appreciate J. Kēhaulani Kauanui’s recent paper, “A Structure, Not an Event”: Settler Colonialism and Enduring Indigeneity.” Importantly, she contextualizes Wolfe’s work in relation to the longer history of indigenous studies scholarship. She also provides a helpful discussion of the tensions and possibilities inherent to the relationship between settler-colonial studies and indigenous studies. I am curious about what Uditi and other scholars studying settler colonialism in settings other than North America and Australia are thinking about these relationships.

SEN: I feel that this discussion on indigenous organizing and agency and its relationship to categories of analysis is a vital and important part of ethical scholarship. I agree entirely with Krista that as scholars of indigeneity, and particularly as historians, it is easier to map absences and chronicle failures and complicities. But, yes, the more urgent and productive task is to map a field of new political and ethical possibilities.


Mary Jane Logan McCallum, Indigenous Women, Work, and History 1940–1980 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2014), 10.

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, “A Structure, Not an Event”: Settler Colonialism and Enduring Indigeneity. Lateral: Journal of the Cultural Studies Association 5, 1 (2016), at: