Aboriginal TM: The Cultural and Economic Politics of Recognition
Review By Pia Russell
July 19, 2023
How does the move away from the term aboriginal and towards the term Indigenous change contemporary political discourses? What trajectories account for this and what future shifts are still to come? Furthermore, how might re-reading these terms reframe conceptions of the past in a uniquely British Columbian context? These are the necessary questions Jennifer Adese addresses in her new book with the University of Manitoba Press, Aboriginal TM: The Cultural and Economic Politics of Recognition. With a compelling narrative through-line, Adese guides readers through the origins of ‘Aboriginal’ as a concept and thoroughly deconstructs the implications it has had, and continues to have, on Indigenous peoples and Indigenous-settler relations today.
Adese’s admirable introduction establishes a robust argumentative framework which she sustains from beginning to end. Drawing upon the critical discourse work of writers such as Coulthard, Foucault, Hall, and Fanon, Adese invites readers to reinterpret how Indigenous representations, self-determination, and identities are impacted in the context of the Canadian state through the historical use of the term ‘Aboriginal.’ She weaves together an analysis of both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous use of the word Aboriginal. Importantly, these usages are not seen in isolation from one another, but as intertwined in complex, power-ridden ways with clear problematic outcomes. Skillfully, she further develops this discourse work by integrating the theoretical frameworks of Raibmon, Alfred, and Corntassel to guide readers effectively through a selection of impactful case studies which include Canadian Olympic programming, government-led tourism initiatives, and the design of the Vancouver International Airport. An effective theoretical addition is Adese’s consideration of Margaret Werry’s work on performance and politics. Werry’s work on engineered imaginings or ‘imagineered’ performance in multicultural constructions of national identity is a particularly promising facet to Adese’s argument and could have been explored even further. Regardless, Adese’s work is strong, and her compelling introduction in particular would be a welcome and clear addition to reading lists for post-secondary courses which discuss Indigenous topics across disciplines. Students new to Indigenous Studies would learn much from her convincing writing, interdisciplinary connections, and inclusive theoretical approach.
While there are many important contributions that Adese makes in her book, two are particularly noteworthy. First, her analysis of the social, political, and economic implications of the usage of ‘Aboriginal’ contributes meaningfully to the broader historiography of critiques of neoliberalism. By outlining the term’s connection to Canada’s unique experience of neoliberal settler colonialism, readers see how terminology has the potential to reduce people to resources constrained in superimposed market economies through constructs such as promotional branding. Alongside this analysis is a recognition of the enduring resistance of many Indigenous people and communities to this projection. She also thoughtfully addresses the multitude of responses by Indigenous individuals, particularly artists, who have worked within and against these structures. Adese firmly positions Indigenous considerations as central to the foundation of neoliberalism specific to Canada but also internationally as well. A second key strength of Adese’s work is her case study of the Vancouver Airport’s international terminal which she explores thoroughly in chapter four. Re-built in the 1990s to expand traveler capacity while also incorporating Indigenous design elements, Adese effectively outlines how airports are yet another common institution in everyday life that is easily overlooked as one more site of colonization. This telling case study demonstrates succinctly how ‘Aboriginalization’ differs from Indigenization and how terminology impacts very real issues today, namely land claims and the colonization of the sky.
Adese makes clear that moves towards the wider use of the term Indigenous are not also without challenges—but what her work does do is provide readers with a clear understanding of how important words are and why changes to them matter. This book will be important for non-Indigenous readers seeking clarity and context on respectful terminology. It will be key reading for contemporary scholars of Canada from across disciplines. It also offers much to public audiences as well such as educators, designers, lawyers, health care professionals, and government officials seeking to develop more meaningful Indigenous-settler relationships. Adese’s work would be a wise addition to the personal libraries of anyone working towards decolonizing their historical awareness and engaging in meaningful acts of truth-telling and reconciliation today.
Adese, Jennifer. Aboriginal TM: The Cultural and Economic Politics of Recognition. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2022. 272 pp. $27.95.