Canada’s definition and documentation of “Indians” is a project of bureaucratic knowledge production in service of the continued assertion of settler colonial political visions.1 The Indian Act was introduced in 1876 to assert the terms of the political relationship between the Dominion of Canada and certain peoples the Act defines as “Indians.” The Act has been amended many times, but is remains a current piece of legislation in Canada and still defines “Indian” as a political and legal category of person.2 Defining and identifying “Indians” served the broader project of managing Canada’s so-called Indian problem. From the perspective of nineteenth-century legislators, the “problem” was one of Indigenous peoples asserting nationhood and insisting on claims to the lands where they have lived since time immemorial, thus creating obstacles for settler claims to sovereignty. But it is also a problem of knowledge, which Indian Affairs administrators sought to address through a practice of classification. To apply and enforce the provisions of the Act designed to undermine Indigenous sovereignty and compel their assimilation, “Indians” had to be made visible to state legislators, bureaucrats, and other agents. The definitional work of the Indian Act is both a technique of classification and a way of seeing.
We are members of knowledge societies, but we live in “an age of ignorance.” We are swimming in “oceans of ignorance” that have been consciously, unconsciously, and structurally produced “by neglect, forgetfulness, myopia, extinction, secrecy, or suppression.” Little wonder, then, that there is also a lot of ignorance about the persistence of racism as a structural phenomenon that orders society in discriminatory ways and racial knowledge as a normalized element of our knowledge societies.
On March 6, 2016, at the height of her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton or someone on her campaign posted a tweet about intersectionality. Commenting on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the accompanying diagram depicted the various issues that had intersected to cause the crisis. This was a curious moment, as a theory with roots in radical feminism was brought to the center, part of a modish interest in intersectionality as an explanatory framework for understanding contemporary America. Indeed, where her main primary challenger was positioned as a more economically progressive choice, Clinton’s supporters often claimed (with varying degrees of sophistication) that in an intersectional sense she was the more properly anti-establishment candidate, over the white male Bernie Sanders. Had Clinton won in November, this discourse of intersectionality would probably have been a main theme of her presidency. That this seemingly centrist liberal set of ideas can be traced to the radical wing of second wave feminism, the New Left, and even Marxism, adds to the curiosity of its move to the political mainstream.
As nations brace to firm up their borders in 2017, a short history of people who inhabited the periphery reminds us of the role boundaries played in an earlier era of globalization. The early woodcuts that helped define this periphery offer a window into the history of knowledge about the Other and also tell us something about the early stages of visual epistemology.
Throughout antiquity and the middle ages, a lively band of monsters lived along the edge of the known world. While discrediting the humanity of certain specimens of mankind has a venerable tradition in the history of othering, at some point, the monstrous assumed human form. In the sixteenth century, temporary visas were issued to these monstrous races and they became human. We have something to learn from the scrutiny generated by this close-up view, a relativism almost forgotten in contemporary treatment of outsiders. The visualization of the Other helped to stabilize subjects for investigation and gave rise to new knowledge structures.