Subaltern Studies and Indigenous Critical Theory (Spring 2008)

Organized by Jodi Byrd, D. Anthony Tyeeme Clark, and Michael Rothberg

During the spring semester of 2008, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory and the American Indian Studies Program will co-host a series of events that explores the intersections of subalternity and indigeneity as categories of critical analysis.  2008 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's talk “Can the Subaltern Speak?” at the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory’s conference on Marxism, and the twentieth anniversary of its publication in MARXISM AND THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTURE, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. To mark the anniversary of this essay and to investigate its continuing implications for a range of intellectual and political projects, the Unit for Criticism and the American Indian Studies Program are sponsoring a seminar on “Subaltern Studies and Indigenous Critical Theory” and a capstone symposium on May 1-2 entitled “Decolonizations: Subaltern Studies and Indigenous Critical Theory.”

This jointly sponsored series will seek to interrogate the critical purchase of the categories “subaltern” and “indigenous” on urgent issues involving colonialism, decolonization, and globalization. As categories of critical analysis, “subalternity” and "indigeneity" throw into question hegemonic narratives of nation and empire, but also trouble many counter-hegemonic projects premised on meta-narratives of class, progress, and anticolonial nationalism. This series of events will cast a comparative eye on critical movements that have emerged out of different historical and intellectual traditions but offer many opportunities for dialogue.

Subaltern Studies emerged in India in the 1980s as a project for rewriting the history of the Indian subcontinent outside the bounds of colonialist, elite nationalist, and Marxist frameworks. The Subaltern Studies scholars sought to bring attention to peasant insurrections that had remained invisible in dominant and much leftist historiography by developing alternative models of history and politics. Gayatri Spivak’s appreciative but critical engagement with the Subaltern Studies project brought the work of the collective to the attention first of postcolonial scholars and soon thereafter to scholars and activists engaged with ethnic and minority critique as well as indigenous studies on a global scale.

For scholars in American Indian Studies, the category of indigeneity marks an intellectual arena located at the crossroads where the processes of colonization intersect with communities who define themselves in terms of kinship networks, first languages, sacred histories, and ceremonial cycles tied intimately to the landscapes surrounding them.  Indigeneity marks a community-grounded
intellectual project that challenges and disrupts common constructs such as race, ethnicity, and nation.  Those more familiar terms pose ontological and epistemological problems for and in indigenous studies; too often they erase indigenous perspectives completely. In an historical moment when imposed displacements and diasporas, volatile borders, and coerced exiles confuse and
obliterate human perspectives, "indigeneity” holds the promise of illuminating and reframing questions of place, space, movement, and belonging.

By bringing together these two critical projects for a sustained and multi-faceted dialogue, the spring 2008 collaboration between the Unit for Criticism and American Indian Studies seeks to address a number of questions.  For instance, how do “subaltern” and "indigenous" signify and challenge the historical and material conditions of colonization, industrialism, and globalization?  In what ways do indigeneity and subalternity permit the remapping of state sovereignty, or the hegemony of multinational institutions? How do indigeneity and subalternity function as political, geographical, and
theoretical categories and how does bringing them to the fore in fields such as anthropology, communications studies, literary studies, gender and women's studies, history, landscape architecture, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, racialized communities studies, and sociology allow for new
intellectual relationships in the humanities? Engaging critically with indigeneity and subalternity as sites of intellectual inquiry allows scholars interested in decolonization, radical theory, and social justice to address discourses that continue to underpin colonial and neo-colonial institutions in a world increasingly dominated by transnational capitalism and neo-imperialism.

Seminar Schedule

*All meetings are on Monday nights from 8:00-10:00pm at the IPRH Building, 805 W. Pennsylvania, Urbana

*All readings will be on electronic reserves, listed under UNIT 2007, Rothberg.

January 28: Introducing Subaltern Studies and Indigenous Critical Theory

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. "Ch. 1: A small history of Subaltern Studies." Habitations of modernity : essays in the wake of subaltern studies. University of Chicago Press, 2002. 3-19, 149-153. 

Guha, Ranajit. "On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India." Selected Subaltern Studies. Guha, Ranajit and Gayatri Spivak (eds.). Oxford University Press, 1988. 37-44. 

Alfred, Taiaiake and Jeff Corntassel. "Being Indigenous: Resurgence Against Contemporary Colonialism." Government and Opposition 40. (2005: Sept): 597-614. 

Cheyfitz, Eric. "The (Post)Colonial Predicament of Native American Studies." Interventions 4.3 (2002): 405-427. 

February 18: Can the Subaltern Speak? Twenty-Five Years Later

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Can the Subaltern Speak?." Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Nelson, Cary and Lawrence Grossberg (eds.). University of Illinois Press, 1988. 271-313. 

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Subaltern studies: deconstructing historiography." Selected Subaltern Studies. Guha, Ranajit and Gayatri Spivak (eds.). Oxford University Press, 1988. 3-32. 

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "History." Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Harvard University Press, 1999. 244-311.

March 3: Decolonizations I : Sovereignty and Empire

Desai, Gaurav. "Capitalism, Sovereignty, and the Dilemmas of Postcoloniality." Boundary 2 33.2 (2006): 177-201.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A.. The Child in the Basement: States of Killing and Letting Die. 1-16.

Simpson, Audra. "On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship." Junctures 9. (December, 2007): 67-80.

Recommended reading:
Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. "Ch. 6: Whiteness, Epistemology, and Indigenous Representation." Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism.Canberra Act, Austrailia: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004. 75-88.

April 7: Decolonizations II : Sovereignty and the State 

Readings by conference participants: 
Pandey, Gyanendra. "Ch. 4: The Evidence of the Historian." Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism, and History in India. Cambridge University Press, 2001. 67-92. 

Rajan, Rajeswari Sunder. "Ch. 7: Outlaw Women: The Politics of Phoolan Devi's Surrender, 1983 (with notes)." The Scandal of the State: Women, Law and Citizenship in Postcolonial India. Permanent Black, 2003. 212-235, 273-278.

Turner, Dale. Indigeneity: political and metaphysical. unpublished, 1-14.

Silva, Noenoe. "Talking Back to Law and Empire: Hula in Native Hawaiian-Language Literature in 1861." Law and Empire in the Pacific: Fiui and Hawaii.Engle Merry, Sally and Donald Lawrence Brenneis. MN:SAR Press, 2004. 101-122.

April 28: Decolonizations III: Nationalism and Insurgency 

Readings by conference participants:

Warrior, Robert. "Ch. 3: Native Critics in the World: Edward Said and Nationalism." American Indian Literary Nationalism. Womack, Craig, Jace Weaver and Robert Warrior. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006. 179-223. 

Saldana-Portillo, Maria Josefina. "Ch. 6: The Politics of Silence + notes." Revolutionary Imagination in the Americas and the Age of Development.Duke University Press, 2003. 190-259, 317-335.

Stewart-Harawira, Makere. "Cultural Studies, Indigenous Knowledge and Pedagogies of Hope." Policy Futures in Education 3.2 (2005): 153-163.

May 1-2: Decolonizations Conference 
at Levis Faculty Center

For more information, contact Michael Rothberg ( or consult the Unit for Criticism website: