Resurgent Indigenous Identities in Urban Spaces

Reviewed by Dallas Hunt

The cumulative effects of centuries of colonial discourse have led to representations of Indigenous peoples that position them as “out of place” in the city. In response to these racist representations of urban Indigeneity (or the lack thereof), there is a small but growing body of work that emphasizes cities as spaces of Indigenous community and belonging. The collection Indigenous in the City, edited by Evelyn Peters and Chris Andersen, charts an approach that attends to the vibrancy of urban Indigenous life, but also refuses to minimize the many challenges Indigenous peoples face in city settings as the result of ongoing colonialism. In doing so, the collection engages the complexities of the accumulated assemblages of colonial policies, internal community dynamics, and individual experiences that have led to Indigenous migrations to cities. At the same time, the contributors consider how urban Indigenous peoples embody and enact their Indigeneity in textured, nuanced, and at times contradictory ways that might challenge colonial expectations, as well as notions of Indigeneity that are often imagined within Indigenous communities themselves.

The text is divided into four sections: Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand. Each grouping is preceded by a succinct historical account of urbanization in the area under review. While these summations are brief, they nonetheless illuminate the many similarities of colonial policies and the corresponding responses to them in countries that are on opposite sides of the globe. Although the ambitious scope of the collection makes summary difficult, there are some noteworthy contributions that should be addressed in brief detail.

A standout in the collection is Jay T. Johnson’s “Dancing into Place.” Johnson outlines how US Indigenous peoples assert their presence through urban powwows and create new forms of community that enable them to honour their ancestral territories and the lands they currently inhabit. Another significant chapter is Yale Belanger’s work on the Canada v. Misquadis decision and how legal policies illuminate the multiple jurisdictional parameters through which Indigenous peoples must navigate. Although the sections on Australia and New Zealand take up considerably less space in the collection, Kelly Greenop and Paul Memmott provide an invaluable look into the workings of kinship relations in Brisbane, Australia, while Brad Coombes’ work on environmental racism, focused specifically on the Otara Creek in South Auckland, is perceptive and resonates with the issues facing Indigenous peoples globally. While there are numerous significant contributions to the collection, these chapters in particular are highlighted because they take a different approach than the statistical analyses that dominate most of the collection. Indeed, if the text has one shortcoming, it is the constant appeal to statistics and population demographics that often obscure or detract from more nuanced explorations of urban Indigenous experiences.

As Peters and Andersen themselves note, a “detailed history of the mechanisms through which Indigenous people in different countries were excluded from urban spaces has yet to be written,” and “the characteristics of urban Indigeneity are still poorly understood.” This collection tries to remedy these persistent and pervading misunderstandings in earnest, and offers an important contribution to what must necessarily be an ongoing conversation not only about urban Indigenous life today, but also about the rich histories of Indigenous peoples in urban settings and the place of the city in Indigenous futures.

This review “Resurgent Indigenous Identities in Urban Spaces” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 226 (Autumn 2015): 152-53.

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