The Indigenous Critique – by Robbie Richardson

The notion of the “Indigenous critique” that David Graeber and David Wengrow put forth in their important book, The Dawn of Everything, is a contentious claim. They locate what they believe to be the authentic voice of the Huron-Wendat statesman Kandiaronk in the writings of French aristocrat Baron de la Hontan, whose Dialogues (1703) with the Wendat Adario have long assumed to be a fictional “noble savage” critique of Europe that expresses the opinions of Lahontan himself. The authors dismiss the notion that Indigenous people as represented by Europeans were mere “sock-puppets,” and instead argue they directly influenced European thought (5). Where else, they ask, could the radical views about freedom and inequality that emerged in Enlightenment Europe have originated other than from the mouths of Indigenous North Americans? 

I am sympathetic to the claim that Indigenous people produced one of the key conceptual shifts in the European Enlightenment. I’m a citizen of Pabineau Mi’kmaq First Nation and my ancestors are described in The Jesuit Relations (1632–1673). We were long called “Micmacs” by Europeans, which comes from our word of greeting meaning “my kin friends,” ni’kmaq; this gives a glimpse into our relational world. Like all Algonquian languages, and also like Iroquoian languages such as the Wyandat spoken by Kandiaronk, Mi’kmaq is verb-based rather than noun-based like European languages. Mi’kmaw educator Marie Battiste notes, “the structure of Algonquian languages are centered on the process of being . . . A cognitive recognition and acceptance of the interrelations of the shared space inform these languages, and thus creates a shared worldview, a cognitive solidarity and a tradition of responsible action.”[1] This relational ontology is not compatible with European notions of individual freedom. Freedom without kinship and collective responsibility would have been inexpressible in Indigenous languages; yet this is precisely the kind of freedom that eighteenth-century thinkers associated with Indigenous people.

The authors suggest that for modern critics of colonial representations, “Indigenous people are assumed to have lived in a completely different . . . reality, [and] anything Europeans said about them was simply a shadow-play projection, fantasies of the ‘noble savage’ culled from the European tradition itself” (30). Even though such critics claim to critique “Western arrogance,” this “could equally well be seen as a form of Western arrogance in its own right” in that it is “a way of infantilizing non-Westerners” (31). It is important to critique such representations and understand their limitations. I also think it is true that Indigenous people in many ways did live an entirely different reality, which can be seen in the ways of being that are embedded in our verb-based languages. The Jesuit missionaries tried to change our blasphemous reality, in part through their written accounts that are now used as primary sources of the cultures they intended to destroy. All colonial representations of Indigenous people need to be interrogated.   

In my first book, I argue that the North American “Indian” as represented in European culture fundamentally shaped modernity, but not in the ways critics have long assumed: the modern did not set itself against the “savage,” but instead found definition in imagined scenes of cultural contact.[2] The European subject became modern by appropriating perceived aspects of the Indigenous subject. These imagined scenes often came from actual sites of contact. So, for example, in 1734 a delegation of Yamacraws visited London with their leader Tomochichi. In 1758, John Cleland, notorious for having written the pornographic novel Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, wrote the play Tombo-Chiqui or, the American Savage. The elderly Tomochichi is transformed to a young Native gallant brought to London by a military officer. He observes British society and concludes:          

[Y]ou are poor, because you confine your notion of riches to money . . . You are slaves to your possessions, which you prefer to your liberty, and to your fellow creatures . . . In short you are ignorant, because you make your wisdom consist in knowing the laws, at the same time that you are strangers to reason, which would teach you to do without laws as we do.[3]

While inspired by the visit of Tomochichi, Cleland’s play was based on James Miller’s play Art and Nature (1738), which was in turn based on a French play, L’Arlequin Sauvage (1721), which was praised by Jean-Jacques Rousseau for the way it “encourages [the audience’s] way of thinking, which is to search and love new and unusual ideas.”[4]

Yet these ideas aren’t so new and unusual since, according to Graeber and Wengrow, they come from Kandiaronk as documented by Lahontan. Many other texts were inspired by Indigenous delegations that came to London throughout the century, such as Addison’s essay in Spectator number 50 (27 April 1711), inspired by the visit of the “Four Indian Kings.” Can we really say that these texts represent actual Indigenous voices or that they were directly inspired by Kandiaronk? It seems to me that European representations of Indigenous people, no matter their origins, engage in an image repertoire. What I am suggesting here is not dissimilar from Edward Said’s account of the Orient in the European imagination. Said notes that when the French poet Gérard de Nerval went to the Middle East in the 1840s, his account echoed Edward Lane’s Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians from 1830.[5] That is to say, the discursive field overrides the experience itself.

The broader history of representations of Indigenous people complicates the narrative of “Indigenous critique.” We can trace this history at least as far back as Michel de Montaigne’s 1580 essay, “Of Cannibals,” written over a century before Lahontan. Montaigne notes that among the Natives of Brazil, “there is . . . no name of magistrate or political superiority; no . . . riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, . . . the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of.”[6] The visiting cannibals wonder why the poor of France “were able to suffer so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses.” They wonder, in other words, about inequality—a question that originates, according to Graeber and Wengrow, with Kandiaronk and is then taken up by Rousseau. Yet the issue, if not its origins, appears much earlier, when, importantly, it is also voiced by Indigenous people. For Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor, the Indian in white culture is a mark of the absence of Native people, part of a narrative generated by colonial discourse offering “consolations in the dominant culture.” The Indian “was an occidental invention that became a bankable simulation.”[7] To what extent, by elevating colonialist accounts, are the authors simply repurposing the same “consolations in the dominant culture”? Do these texts truly grant access to Indigenous thought?

Kahnawà:ke Mohawk anthropologist Audra Simpson notes that “[t]o speak of Indigeneity is to speak of colonialism and anthropology, as these are means through which Indigenous people have been known and sometimes are still known.”[8] Anthropology and earlier ethnographic accounts were tied to the material interests of Empire. As Simpson suggests, texts such as The Jesuit Relations were “specific technologies of rule that sought to obtain space and resources to define and know the difference that it constructed in those spaces, and to then govern those within” (95). Patrick Wolfe notes: “Black people were racialized as slaves; slavery constituted their blackness. Correspondingly, Indigenous North Americans were not killed, driven away, romanticized . . . and otherwise eliminated as the original owners of the land but as Indians.”[9] In his account of the Mi’kmaq, the Jesuit writer Chrestien Le Clercq includes a speech by a Native man rallying against the French and asserting Indigenous superiority and freedom on the land. John Locke owned and heavily annotated Le Clercq’s account. Yet it would lead him to define property as the product of labor “[a]mongst those who are counted the civilized part of mankind.”[10] His foil is the “wild Indian” who “knew no enclosure, and is still a tenant in common” and therefore could not create or possess private property. This “wicked liberty,” in other words, fundamentally displaces Indigenous peoples from the rights to their territory.

Simpson argues that “within Indigenous contexts, when the people we speak of speak for themselves, their sovereignty interrupts anthropological portraits of timelessness, procedure, and function that dominate representations of their past and, sometimes, their present.”[11] The Indigenous critique may be constitutive of Western modernity, but we were instrumentalized into the Enlightenment’s self-imaging while being materially targeted for destruction. Nonetheless, The Dawn of Everything has contributed to an important conversation about the value of Indigenous cultures. As Lakota historian Nick Estes puts it, “our history is the future.”[12] Later in his book of the same title, he concludes, “For the earth to live, capitalism must die.”[13] The Indigenous critique today can be just as transformative as it was to European early modernity, but this time we can come along in solidarity and speak for ourselves.

Robbie Richardson is Assistant Professor of English at Princeton University, NJ.

[1] Marie Battiste, “Nikanikinútmaqn,” in James Youngblood Henderson, The Mi’kmaw Concordat (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1997), 13.

[2] Robbie Richardson, The Savage and Modern Self: North American Indians in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018).

[3] John Cleland, Tombo-Chiqui: or, the American Savage (London: printed for S. Hooper and A. Morley, 1758), 31-32.

[4] Richardson, Savage, 57.

[5] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 184.

[6] Michel de Montaigne, “Of Cannibals,” in Essays, trans. Charles Cotton, ed. William Carew Hazlitt (Auckland: The Floating Press, 2009), 476-501.

[7] Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 11.

[8] Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across Settler States (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 95.

[9] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 2006): 388.

[10] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. Mark Goldie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[11] Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus, 97.

[12] Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (New York: Verso Books, 2019).

[13] Estes, Our History is the Future, 258.

Cite this note as: Robbie Richardson, “The Indigenous CritiqueJournal18 (July 2023),

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