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Mark Rifkin, Speaking for the People: Native Writing and the Question of Political Form

Mathilde Louette
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Mark Rifkin, Speaking for the People: Native Writing and the Question of Political Form, Durham, Duke University Press, 2021, 316 pages, ISBN 9781478013419, $27.95.

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1“To speak about by speaking for” (3)—this quote from the introduction to Speaking for the People encapsulates the concerns of its author’s manifold argument when engaging with nineteenth-century Native intellectuals and the issue of literary representativity in the politics of peoplehood. What Mark Rifkin sheds light on is not so much the nature and characteristics of Indigenous peoplehood in the texts he studies, as the ways in which Indigenous peoplehood overflows the political form(s) which the settler state attributes to it. Attending to the contexts and strategies these texts engage with, especially the intellectual labor of representativity they exemplify, allows Rifkin to show that Indigenous peoplehood is unbounded and that its definition remains an ongoing and open-ended process.

2Speaking for the People challenges the tendency in Indigenous studies to posit a de facto notion of peoplehood. Rethinking the term “peoplehood,” the book discusses loaded notions such as governance and sovereignty, subjectivity and identity, thereby opening a plethoric toolbox of concepts and notions, among which the unpacking of the word “tribe.” Tribe, Rifkin argues, is a settler-imposed political form with a double purpose: making Indian entities legible to non-native administration and audiences; and forcing them to recognize themselves under the appellation (18). The texts under study negotiate this original coercion through which Indigenous collectivities are at once depoliticized (at the end of the treaty-making era, tribe increasingly came to mean a cultural and racial entity, as chapter 4 explores in the writings of Zitkala-Ša), de-historicized (a process unpacked in chapter 2 with the study of William Apess) and uprooted from their reality (Indian political entities were seldom unanimous, as chapters 1 and 3 demonstrate in Elias Boudinot’s Letters and Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins’s Life Among the Paiutes).

3The book is structured as a forum for discussion and debate. The introduction functions as a toolbox that frames four chapters focusing on Native texts, while the coda reflects on the project of literary scholarship itself and the act of reading. This dynamism leaves the reader feeling that they have been part of a thinking process characterized by fluidity, movement, and the unsettling of existing categories. As to the choice of texts, it is ambitious, if only because of the wealth of scholarship already available on the four authors under study. Each text has been chosen for the way it stages Indigenous collectivity in the context of a particular settler-imposed political configuration (form), and the way the author both portrays and proxies for their people. The book covers the whole of the nineteenth century and a large part of the United States’ territory: chapters 1 and 2 look at the Eastern United States (Georgia and New England) prior to and during the 1830s, while chapters 3 and 4 look at the Western United States (the Southwest and the Plains) in the late nineteenth century.

4Chapter 1 studies Elias Boudinot’s Letters and Other Papers Relating to Cherokee Affairs: Being a Reply to Sundry Publications Authorized by John Ross (1837), written after Boudinot’s infamous signing of the Treaty of New Echota (1835) in the name of the Cherokee people. Chapter 2 looks at three pieces by Mashpee Indian William Apess (A Son of the Forest, 1831; Eulogy on King Philip, 1836; and Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts Rel­ative to the Marshpee Tribe; or, The Pretended Riot Explained, 1835). The three texts gesture to the exemplarity and historicity of Native figures in New England, at a time when Eastern Indians have been reduced to wards in a guardianship supervision system based on claims of their declension, dependence, and forthcoming disappearance. The second half of the book looks at “the work of representation among the ruins of diplomatic relations” (32). At the end of the treaty era and at the beginning of the detribalization process, these relations consisted in implementing the reservation system and the allotment policy. Focusing on Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins’ Life Among the Paiutes (1883), chapter 3 sheds light on the necessity for the author to give a unified vision of Paiute peoplehood in the hope of rebuilding diplomatic relations. Finally, chapter 4 offers a masterful deep-dive into the white ethnographic imaginary with which Zitkala-Ša’s American Indian Stories (1900) contends.

5Rifkin is interested in the question of representativity (speaking for): what does representativity really speak about in the context of maximum settler pressure, and what can we learn from it to address contemporary issues? Drawing on Spivak and Latour, Rifkin looks at how the texts exist within the dichotomy of portrait and proxy (Spivak); and how they can be studied as mediators rather than intermediaries (Latour). Focusing on method rather than content, Rifkin shows how the texts engage more than they enact: they engage with non-native audiences in the hope of shifting popular sentiment and impact federal Indian policy and administration (24). Yet it is hard to negotiate the extremes of popular hunger for authentic tribalism v. federal policy of removal or assimilation. Against the illusion of an extratextual Indigenous real mostly inferred by non-native audiences’ appetite for authenticity, the texts show the negotiatedness of Indigenous forms, the result of an ongoing negotiation with settler forms.

6Working across a variety of Native experiences conditioned by a diversity of settler-imposed political forms, Rifkin maps out the mechanisms of literary representativity at work in each of the texts in order to unearth silenced configurations of Indigenous peoplehood. Gender is given special attention: behind the bind between Boudinot’s Treaty Party and Ross’s “official” Cherokee government, Rifkin shows how both claims to representativity overlook the matrilineal reality of clan-forming and clan-belonging which the majority of Cherokee people still upheld in everyday life (49); in chapter 2, he acknowledges Mashpee women’s enduring role in sustaining Indigenous sociopolitical formations in New England at a time when Native men had the privilege of mobility, through his analysis of Apess’s fleeting references to his Aunt Sally’s syncretic gatherings (94). Thus, Rifkin pays tribute to matriarchal formations of Native collectivity and shows how they have been erased from texts and politics to fit non-native expectations. The “authentic” collectivity Boudinot or Apess claim to represent, he shows, had already been abundantly modified.

7Perhaps one of Rifkin’s major achievements in this book is his capacity to shed light on extant forms of Native peoplehood which have been effaced in Native texts. Besides gender, he points out the problem of elite representativity in Boudinot’ Letters: building on the work of postcolonial theorists like Spivak, Guha, or Sara Ahmed, Rifkin highlights how the Treaty Party intellectuals disregarded “popular accountability” (37) based on portraying the Cherokee people as gullible, ignorant, and backward (therefore subaltern). By doing so, Boudinot both engaged with settler representation while evading answerability (38). In chapter 3, Rifkin’s analysis of Sarah Winnemucca’s political rhetoric of avoidance of the Ghost Dance context showcases the sociospiritual dynamics of intertribal encounters which were in full fledge at the time of her writing, and thereby disproves the author’s claim of tribal unanimity and separateness.

8Rifkin’s concern with language makes for some of the most brilliant passages in the book, although he (regrettably) does not reflect on the use of English as perhaps the primary “mediator” in the texts under study. In chapter 4, his glossing of the word “wild” proves intensely convincing: he shows how Zitkala-Ša uses the term and its associations as the entrée into what the non-native public hungers for (the “tribal real,” which amounts here to an “authenticity” fabricated by the ethnological imaginary), and he then analyzes how she “reorients wild from signaling an ethnological lag—a thrilling difference from white norms in its savage backwardness—to expressing both a sense of ‘freedom’ and a connection to the landscape” (197). Thus, federal encroachment on, or coercion of, this “wildness” is immediately recast as an attack. Perhaps Rifkin is at his most convincing when problematizing what he calls “the incapacity of tropes” (203), which he registers as a subtle literary strategy used by the writers to point out the inadequacy of western-inspired characterization of native everyday life and self (such as the aforementioned idea of “wildness”). The phrase is first used in chapter 4 to describe the oddness of biblical metaphors in Zitkala-Ša’s stories, but one feels that it speaks about each text at hand: when Boudinot plays on the imagery of backwardness to silence ordinary Cherokee people; when Apess experiments with the values of metonymy to portray his own or King Philip’s exemplarity; or when Winnemucca resorts to Manichean binaries of good and bad Indians to justify Paiute separateness. Last but not least, this phrase is also applicable to the English language as exemplified in the abundant quotations from various Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (ARCIA): for instance, how they refer to the reservations as “gifts” of land, thereby canceling any prior Indigenous claim to sovereignty (165).

9But one question remains: why return to the nineteenth century to shed light on contemporary struggles? As in the introduction, Rifkin points to the critical distance from contemporary troubles that nineteenth-century texts might afford, while they also stage various efforts to speak to non-native audiences. Rifkin’s Speaking for the People contends with one of today’s most polarized issues in Indigenous politics and theory, which is recognition. And once again, the answer is in the method, not the content. What Rifkin seeks in these texts is not the answer to the question, “How to be recognized?” but rather, “What is the meaning of pursuing recognition?” (2), ultimately critiquing what recognition is (as a process, an aim, a struggle). Rifkin acknowledges the importance of refusal as an alternative to recognition (i.e., refusing to accept without question the legitimacy of those who claim they have the authority to recognize, in other words the state), yet gestures along with Leanne Simpson to the concept of “resurgence” and the importance of focusing on an “Indigenous inside” rather than an outside (that is, the violence of imposed state forms). In line with Audra Simpson, Rifkin argues that refusal is a “project of interpretation” that allows for “the open-endedness of processes of political meaning-making and collective decision-making with regard to political form” (225).

10Also, by engaging with today’s issues of recognition, refusal and resurgence, Rifkin redefines the relevance of his practice as a scholar and a literary critic. His book’s coda (chapter 5) proposes no less than a methodology that understands the process of reading as a project and literature as a mediator rather than an intermediary. Important is his recasting of Latour’s concepts into “an ethics of knowledge-production” (221), an ethics that advocates reading for. Reading for the project of Indigenous resurgence involves looking for epistemological density and complexity rather than difference; it also requires coming to terms with “messiness” and “unfinishedness” as theoretical interpretive tools to avoid categorization and overdetermination. In sum, Speaking for the People reasserts the usefulness and relevance of literary studies in fashioning Indigenous political theory. Rifkin demonstrates how nineteenth-century Native texts have had to navigate settler worldings to express peoplehood and how their intellectual labor of negotiatedness should inspire present-day scholarship. His demonstration is as compelling as it is unsettling.

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LATOUR, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

SIMPSON, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

SIMPSON, Leanne Betasamosake. Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2011.

SPIVAK, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

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Mathilde Louette, « Mark Rifkin, Speaking for the People: Native Writing and the Question of Political Form »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2022, consulté le 28 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Mathilde Louette

Université Paris Cité

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