In graphic design, white or negative space is the part of the page left unmarked. It draws attention by not being drawn. Space between nonwhite or positive spaces creates a structure that holds the other pieces in place, that keeps them separate from each other and forms boundaries. Space is not really invisible, but it isn’t really there either. Space is the distance between things; it is the place where we have things, and we often think of space as being empty. When the colonists looked at the space where they landed all they saw was what was available. They saw empty uninhabited space that may have been filled with people but not civilization. And of course, in space no one can hear you scream.
In various ways so many of these conversations on Ambe, a yearlong series of discussions about Indigenous literatures, deal with space and how access is controlled and attended to. Back in February, Dr. Tiya Miles reminded us of the invisible structuring of whiteness and the way that it shapes and mediates relationships between Black and Indigenous people. It acts like white space in graphic design, becoming an invisible background against which all other things are foregrounded, creating boundaries and distance between us.
Whiteness, analyzed in these discussions about the world around us and refusing patriarchy, is that negative space. European ideas about what is normal and what is different were carried to this world that they called “new” or “brave” but never “exploited.” They shape how we have relationships with each other, with the land and water, the sky above, and everything that exists in those places. The world around us provides everything we need in order to live. Europeans brought with them systems that control access to that world, inserting a white space between us that severs relationships, a space that creates power dynamics we must always attend to.
In April we talked about our other than human relatives. We did not try to learn lessons from them but to listen to them, which is not the same thing. We tried to see them through the kinship system of Black and Indigenous societies that think about relationship and responsibility rather than ownership and dominion. Kinship systems often have clan structures that organize the society, and each clan has responsibilities to the larger society. Boundaries exist, but nobody controls access to the things that the people need to meet their responsibilities. The panel included Daniel Heath Justice, a Cherokee professor of Indigenous literature and the author of Raccoon and Badger among others; Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a Black Jewish particle physicist and author of The Disordered Cosmos; as well as readers Celeste Smith, Ben Krawec, and Neil Ellis Orts. We considered the books by Daniel and Chanda as well as Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals by Alexis Pauline Gumb and two books by Robin Wall Kimmerer: Braiding Sweetgrass and Moss.
Learning to Listen
The Anishinaabe have a story about the Hoof nation, the deer, the caribou, the moose, and others, withdrawing from us because of what amounts to exploitative behavior by the people: over-hunting and being disrespectful of the lives taken. After searching ourselves and searching for them, the Hoof and Anishinaabe nations met for days, weeks maybe, and we listened to them. We listened to the harms and the hurts and we agreed to do better and they came back. Discovery inevitably leads to exploitation, and it is only through listening and releasing control that we can overcome this tendency in us. Daniel’s books Badger and Raccoon not only describe these animals on their own terms but also how the discovery of both animals led to violence through exploitative imagery and hunting and how they became metaphors to demean other humans. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s books teach us to notice plants, to notice their withdrawal from us and then listen to them and learn how to encourage their return.
Europeans also colonize and exploit the night sky: writing Greek and Roman stories on top of Indigenous star knowledge, scattering satellites among the stars, and invading places like Mauna Kea, known to the Kanaka Maoli to have “good seeing.” The Kanaka Maoli knew how to read the night sky, and their knowledge, along with knowledge of wind patterns, bird migrations, and ocean currents, allowed them to sail the ocean blue long before Columbus in 1492, as in the rhyme that memorializes his voyage. We don’t know which rhymes commemorate the voyages of the Pacific peoples. But we know their mountain, and we know that they are supposedly standing in the way of science and progress. Again. Because that is how the white space, the negative space, of colonialism surrounds and defines Indigenous resistance.
Dr. Keolu Fox, a Kanaka Maoli geneticist, says that our genomes are shaped by the land, and when Chanda brought his observation into this conversation about other than human relatives, it felt important, connective. We think about the ways we shape the land, but we don’t often think about the way that the land shapes us, deep and profound ways. Tibetans have a genetic adaptation which allows them to breathe at high altitude. This genetic difference is also present in the Andean people as well and the animals that live among them. The land writes itself into our genes just as we inscribe ourselves onto the land. The land becomes part of us in other ways, too: plants take up minerals from the ground, from the rocks that their roots encircle. By eating plants, we bring those minerals into ourselves, which then return to the land. These connections are not metaphors or romantic notions. We are made of and shaped by the land we live on.
Binaries and Belonging
The colonial West, which is not the same as the Indigenous west, thinks in binaries and duality, which are not the same as modality. Male and female. Day and night. Land and sea. But these aren’t really binaries because there are many things that are neither this nor that. Intersex people exist. Twilight exists. Marshes and wetlands exist. They are modalities, helpful categories that can be discarded when they are no longer helpful. And Indigenous peoples are, by and large, comfortable with these uncertain spaces where people and places are neither this nor that. The problem with turning modalities into binaries, with putting negative space in between them to sharpen the boundaries, is that you need to shrink what is available to the positive space, and you wind up erasing or minimizing part of the image. Boundaries define what something is or where it belongs, and they also define what something is not and where it does not belong.
In patriarchy, queer people do not belong.
In patriarchy, women belong in some places but not others.
The negative space created by patriarchy surrounds and separates everything else, turning modalities into binaries and erasing people and relationships in the process. So in May we talked about refusing patriarchy, and I invited Taté Walker, a two-spirited Lakota author and journalist whose essay was featured in Fierce; Seán Carson a two-spirited Cree writer whose zines and smutty poetry have been published but weren’t on the reading list; Nick Thixton, a nonbinary settler activist; Robyn Bourgeois, a Cree professor and matriarch and researcher into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls; and Angela Gray, a Jamaican writer raising an Afro-Indigenous son. We looked at a number of books including Half Breed by Maria Campbell, Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq, The Beginning and End of Rape by Sarah Deer, Reproductive Justice by Barbara Gurr, Fierce: Essays by and about Dauntless Women, and A Two Spirit Journey by Ma-Nee Chacaby.
We talked about the way that patriarchy acts like a negative space, shaping and separating and controlling access by controlling the way we think about ourselves and our relationships. In many ways, this is a feature of centralized power, this need to control and define gender. The more decentralized a society is, the more agency women have, the more present and visible nonbinary and queer people are. There is less white space to control and contain, less white space for us to control and contain. Perhaps decentralized societies, like many Indigenous societies here, need everyone more than those that centralize power in the hands of a few. In decentralized societies, decisions are made within the community according to what serves that community’s needs within the larger society’s shared values and priorities. Centralized societies, like the nation-states that emerged in the modern period, think about what is best for the state, and people become disposable, replaceable. It is ironic, don’t you think, that the western society, which shouts so loudly about the individual, actually places little value on people beyond how they do or do not conform to the state’s needs? The negative space of centralized power expands until it encircles and defines those who meet its needs and erases those who do not.
Creating Our Own Space
Refusing patriarchy becomes about controlling and containing that negative space and refusing the definitions and erasure that its boundaries impose. Maria Campbell’s memoir Half-Breed includes the memory of her sexual assault by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer. The original publication removed that incident from the manuscript, and Maria insisted that it be restored in the new edition. Maria is Métis, and the Métis nation emerged from the Red River Valley in Manitoba, the descendants of Cree mothers and French fathers who formed a distinct people who became known as the Métis, a French word that means mixed. Where the children of other white-Native relationships found belonging in one community or the other, political circumstances in the West isolated these families. Neither Cree nor French, before they were Métis they were known as the “road allowance people,” because they lived in a world that did not want them to exist. They lived on the edges of the roads, that strip of land that is owned by the government and forms a buffer between the farms and the traffic. Over time and under Louis Reil they pushed aside that negative space and created their own.
The term “two-spirit” is recent. It originated in Winnipeg during an intertribal conference and comes from the Ojibwe words niizh manitoag, two spirits, and it refers to a person who has both masculine and feminine spirit. The concept is not recent, but our societies did not have that backgrounding negative space that creates boundaries and separations and requires particular names. Binaries create exceptions, and exceptions require names. I know that people complain it’s complicated—all these letters and pronouns and genders—but it’s the binary that makes it complicated by trying to create boundaries in transitional spaces.
In her book Disordered Cosmos, Chanda writes about Euclidean geometry. This is a geometry of planes and angles, of straight lines. It works in small spaces, but our world is a globe, and we live beneath a curved sky. If your GPS unit relied on Euclidean geometry you would get nowhere fast. By mapping straight lines onto curved space, European thinkers have given us a world of boundaries that don’t make any sense. The closer you are to the curved nature of land, the more comfortable you are with modalities, with transitional spaces. Beavers create dams, but they are temporal creations of sticks and mud that inevitably wash away as the river returns to its course or changes course. Even the mighty Mississippi has not always existed in its present state. Over the centuries it has wandered and roamed across the floodplain, merging water with land until it reaches the sea and freshwater becomes salt.
Humans love to name and categorize things. We are intensely curious, and in almost every creation story the original people are tasked with naming the world around them. Toddlers can spend all day asking, “What is it, what is it?” Many of these names have to do with the characteristics of what is named, what it is, what it does, what I can do with it. Identifying things helps to organize and structure your relationship to the world around you. But relationships are shaped by power dynamics, the inevitable white space that creeps in to create separations and hard boundaries, that maps straight lines onto curved space. Those who are impacted may withdraw as the Hoof clan did; their withdrawal may result in a new people who insist on their place as the Métis did. Our task is to notice their withdrawal, their absence, then to search ourselves and search for them so that we can listen. When people and stories are not erased by negative space, they don’t have to scream.
Join the next Ambe discussion this Thursday, June 17 at 6pm CDT / 7pm EDT.