[Essay] Empire after Empire: The Endless Desert of Settler Indigenisation in Nomadland — Patrick Turner

Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (2020)is a film about what happens after empire. The opening exposition describes how in 2011, after 88 years, the United States Gypsum Corporation closed down its mine in the town of Empire, Nebraska. Without its primary industry, the inhabitants of Empire left, and the town’s zip code was eventually discontinued. One of those left behind after the mine’s closure is Fern (Frances McDormand), who we meet loading up the van which will be her home for the rest of the film. The first stop on Fern’s journey is a seasonal job at an Amazon warehouse but, unable to find further work at the end of the holiday period, she travels south on a colleague’s recommendation to Bob Wells’s Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR), a “bootcamp for beginner nomads” in the Arizona desert.[1] The RTR, where Fern learns the required skills to become a full-time nomad, appears to be a world apart from the everyday brutalities of life under neoliberal capitalism; the members of the community share meals, trade belongings, and sit around the campfire discussing the experiences which brought them together. For Fern and the others, this nomadic life represents an opening up of space and new potential, as McDormand suggests in one interview: “once [Fern] hits the road, the possibilities become open…”.[2] In telling Fern’s story, Nomadland presents a vision of a liberating, albeit difficult life of possibilities beyond Empire. When, at the end of the film, Fern returns to the abandoned town, and walks through her old house before setting off once again into an empty wilderness of possibilities, we can feel certain that this departure from Empire is definitive. In telling the story of Fern’s departure from Empire, the film restages some of the most pervasive narratives that underpin U.S. settler colonialism. 

One of the foundational claims made about settler colonial nation states is that, like Fern, they too have left empire behind. In the context of the United States, this is perhaps most clearly expressed in the historicising of a “Colonial Era”, which ostensibly ends with independence from Britain. This, despite the fact that the U.S. would go on to colonise more territory after 1776 than the land area which made up the initial thirteen colonies. The claim that the Americas have left Empire behind is also played out, to varying degrees, in how colonialism is theorised, from the “post”-ness of the postcolonial, to concepts such as coloniality, which understand contemporary structures as rooted in the colonial past, rather than as persisting forms of colonisation themselves. As Shannon Speed argues, the problem with frameworks that treat colonialism as “residual or a legacy of a past colony” is that they fail “to address settler colonialism as settler: they accept the basic premise that the settler has settled, and is now from here, rather than acknowledging that there is a state of ongoing occupation”.[3] The reality of this ongoing occupation is central to Patrick Wolfe’s initial formulation of the term settler colonialism: “The colonizers come to stay – invasion is a structure not an event”.[4] But if colonisation is a structure, rather than a one-off event that can be conveniently stored in the past-ness of history, then that structure is often cyclical, full of competing tendencies, and able to thrive on its own internal contradictions. This is evidenced in the kinds of stories which proliferate within settler states, wherein the process of settler colonialism is routinely framed, not as a glorious conquest in the name of empire, but as a liberatory departure, either spatial or temporal or both, away from empire

This is where the term “settler colonialism” encounters one of its limitations. As a figure, the settler conjures up a specific image of settling on the land, of settling down as husband and wife. It is precisely this form of settlement which Fern eschews in favour of the nomadic. The film’s depictions of sedentary life include both the middle-class barbeque which takes place at her sister’s suburban house, as well as nomad-turned-grandad Dave’s intergenerational family homestead. Whilst the regimes of white, patriarchal normativity signified in these scenes are integral to how settler colonial states order and police their populations along lines of gender, race and class, the expansion of territory under settler colonialism relies not just on the desire to reproduce these regimes elsewhere, but also on the desperation of those hoping to flee the intense socio-economic hardship they create. Whether it’s pilgrims, planters, or immigrants, the escape from the church or the state, like Fern’s flight from Empire into the West, is rarely a tale of conquest, but a liberatory flight into the wilderness of the New World. The problem with this liberatory departure from empire into the wilderness is that there is no untouched wilderness in the Americas, only the lands which make up hundreds of Indigenous nations. The many scenes of Fern driving through empty landscapes reiterate the same colonial trope that there is always a terra nullius of possibilities somewhere further on down the road, beyond the frontiers of “modern life”; a trope that ultimately yields potential and future opportunities from the erasure of Indigenous sovereignty.

The implication that Fern’s nomadism places her at the edge of an uncharted territory is underscored by both the name of her van, “Vanguard”, and her sister’s suggestion that “what the nomads are doing is not that different than what the pioneers did, right?” The comparison between the nomads and settler pioneers is significant. Often, American colonisation is framed as a conflict between sedentary European settlers and nomadic Indigenous tribes. This framing relies on a very particular manipulation of scale wherein the mobility exercised by Indigenous peoples within regions they have inhabited for generations becomes, in the imperialist worldview, evidence of a nomadic, unproductive rootlessness, whilst the continual movement of white settlers across oceans and continents in the service of global capitalism remains inexplicably sedentary. However, even within the parameters of this specific framing, settler colonial projects have historically required a nomadic vanguard in order to expand their territories, just as much as the sedentary settlers who arrive in tandem. Narrative accounts of this nomadic vanguard, launched out of empire, render Indigenous nation space a wilderness of possibilities. At the same time, the more recognisably sedentary settlers arrive and carry out the enclosure of that “wilderness”, reinstating the same old regimes of empire (now the nation state), and thereby displacing yet another generation of nomads, and so on. What is most often lost within the countless narratives caught up in this cycle is the net result: a history of genocide on stolen land. As Nick Estes points out, “US history is all about land and the transformation of space, fundamentally driven by territorial expansion, the elimination of Indigenous peoples, and white settlement”.[5] Whilst Estes’s work addresses the very material changes wrought by colonial resource extraction, his emphasis on the transformation of space nonetheless prompts the realisation that the draw of the nomadic within US narratives has less to do with any sense of implied mobility, in and of itself, and much more to do with how the idea of nomadism transforms those spaces traversed into wilderness, which is to say, a space emptied of the inconvenience of Indigenous sovereignty.  

The pervasiveness of the wilderness myth has meant that the essential work of critiquing the operations of the state and the disastrous effects of capitalism has often driven those critiques, Zhao’s Nomadland among them, into the same wilderness which makes settler capitalist expansion possible to begin with. One of Nomadland’s most influential forerunners in this respect is the potential of the nomadic, described in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (1980). Importantly, what Deleuze and Guattari seem to value in the nomadic also has less to do with an implied sense of mobility, and hinges more on the nomad’s relationship with the space they inhabit. They refer to the type of desert space inhabited by nomads as “smooth” space or “nomad” space and associate this with the rhizomatic (fibrous, interconnecting vegetal networks). They position this smooth, nomad space in opposition to the “striated” or “sedentary” space of the State, associated with the arborescent (binary root and tree systems). According to Deleuze and Guattari, “The nomad distributes himself in a smooth space; he occupies, inhabits, holds that space; that is his territorial principle”. As they go on to suggest, it is the occupation of smooth space, rather than their mobility which defines the nomad, in fact, “They are nomads by dint of not moving… of holding a space they refuse to leave”.[6] So, if for a theorist of settler colonialism like Wolfe, “the primary object of settler-colonization is the land itself”, then similarly, the “primary determination of nomads”, according to Deleuze and Guattari, “is to occupy and hold a smooth space” and “it is this aspect that determines them as nomad”.[7]      

If nothing else, this formulation tells us that there is nothing intrinsic to the nomad which precludes them from playing an important role in settler colonial land occupation. In fact, far from operating beyond the reach of empire, it is this same vanguard character which makes the nomad essential to colonial expansion. But whilst, for Deleuze and Guattari, the liberatory nomad “is one who… where the steppe or the desert advances, invents nomadism as a response to this challenge”, in settler colonialism, it is most often the white nomad, displaced or in some way spurred on by capitalism, around which the myth of a desert or wilderness must be
invented.[8] The invention of the wilderness is necessary in order for the white nomad’s plight to be understood, not as an expression of the coercive power of capitalist expansion onto sovereign nations, but as a journey through a landscape free of alternate hierarchical structures (primarily Indigenous sovereignty) which encourages self-reflection and self-reliance beyond the confines of modernity.

The US “West” is one such space that Deleuze and Guattari quickly identify as rhizomatic, smooth space: “America is a special case… everything important that has happened or is happening takes the route of the American rhizome… there is the rhizomatic West, with its Indians without ancestry, its ever-receding limit, its shifting and displacing frontiers”[9]. But what then are we to make of this apparent commonality between the settler colonial and the nomadic, given that, in A Thousand Plateaus, it is most often this figure of the “Indian without ancestry” and not the settler, which Deleuze and Guattari associate with the nomad? The insights of Jodi A. Byrd are crucial in this regard, who explains that Deleuze and Guattari’s interest in the nomad as the representative of a kind of liberatory potential stems from a “pathological colonizing condition of faux-Indian, a pathology that haunts any left intellectual who steps forward to ventriloquize the speaking Indian by transforming the becoming-[Indian] into replacing Indian”.[10] In this way, the nomadic Indians of Deleuze and Guattari’s “West” should be understood, not as pertaining to actually existing Indigenous peoples, but as an expression of the settler colonial desire to become Indigenous. As Byrd points out, “The Indian model, like the nomad, assembles for Deleuze the site of movement, escape, difference… existing outside of and rupturing the state”[11], going on to suggest that, “What we imagine to be outside of and rupturing to the state, through Deleuze, already depends upon a paradigmatic Indianness that arises from colonialist discourses justifying expropriation of Indigenous lands”.[12]

In this way, Byrd’s critique of Deleuze and Guattari’s nomad space holds true in the case of Zhao’s Nomadland, which “performs a… nomadic reframing in which the frontier becomes, again, [a] site of transformation, possibility…”.[13] If, for Slavoj Žižek, writing in the aftermath of the 2008 crash around which Nomadland is set, the logic of “postmodern” capitalism is characterised by a “deregulatory, ‘anti-statal’, nomadic”  nature, then Byrd’s analysis makes clear that this is not specific to the last few decades, but an integral part of how settler capitalist expansion has always functioned: “the U.S. lines of flight across the treaties with indigenous nations were always rhizomatic and fluid rather than hierarchical, linear, and coherent, located not just in the nation-state but within the individual settlers and arrivants who saw indigenous lands as profit, fortune, and equality”.[14] What Byrd calls “nomadic reframing” is played out when Fern’s fellow Amazon employee, Angela, shows her the lines from a Morrisey song she has tattooed on her arm, “Home, is it just a word? Or is it something that you carry within you?”.  Through these lyrics, the cross-continental displacement of people driven into precarious wage labour (exemplified by Amazon itself) is reframed as a nomadic expression of sovereignty. In this way, what is imagined to be, if not rupturing, at least critical of capitalism in Nomadland, relies on an embracing of a nomadic tradition which, epistemologically speaking, can only express itself by upholding the negation of Indigenous sovereignty; thereby paving the way for the construction of what Chadwick Allen terms “settler indigeneity”. As Allen notes, Indigenous peoples “have been forced to compete for indigenous status with European settlers and their descendants eager to construct new identities that separate them from European antecedents”.[15]

For Lorenzo Veracini, this process of “Indigenisation is driven by the crucial need to transform an historical tie (‘we came here’) into a natural one (‘the land made us’)”.[16] Nomadland is fundamentally a tale of indigenisation. Throughout the film, Fern sheds historical ties and has them replaced with natural ties to the landscape. Such natural ties are often underpinned by a sense of indigeneity, as when Bob tells Fern, “I think connecting to nature and to a real true community and tribe, will make all the difference for you”[17]. At times, the suggestion that the land made Fern is captured explicitly, as when the campsite astrologer tells her that “Stars blow up and they shoot plasma and atoms out into space. They sometimes land on earth, nourish the soil and become part of you”. But the idea that the land has in some way birthed Fern is also played out in the shots which invoke a nourishing, incubatory nature, as when, during a wilderness montage of Fern wandering through a forest of giant redwoods, she floats naked in a river with her eyes closed. Fern’s name is important in this respect, a common, seemingly unremarkable plant but one which dates back hundreds of millions of years (and which, incidentally, is rhizomatic). Such invocations of deep time within settler colonialism tend to have the effect of flattening the more recent histories which have determined settler presence in the landscape; wherein Indigenous claims based upon treaties, historical evidence and living memory are blotted out by an investment in the atavistic.

Describing the characters’ relationship with the landscape, McDormand refers to a comment made about one of her earlier performances: “A close up of Frances McDormand’s face is like visiting a national park”.[18] Of course, this suggestion taps into the same impulse which underpins the design of actual national parks. Mount Rushmore, a monument built on unceded Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho territory, aims for the literalisation of the indigenising impulse, with the presidents’ faces emerging out of the rock face itself; a melding of the coloniser’s body with the landscape. As a memorial, Mount Rushmore does not communicate history, instead it obliterates local histories in favour of this claim to a natural connection predicated on white supremacy. In this sense, the comparison of seeing Frances McDormand’s face on the screen to visiting a national park is, if nothing else, an entirely appropriate way of understanding how Nomadland functions. If national parks undermine histories of Indigenous sovereignty by preserving an ahistorical wilderness which was never really a wilderness, then Fern’s nomadism also relies on this same wilderness. If as McDormand notes,  “the desert is a perfect place to put us”, this is in no small part due to the fact that it is a space in which the settler body has seemingly unfettered access to such associations with the landscape.[19] The indigenising impulse within settler colonialism, epitomised by the nomadic, is important because it stakes the coloniser’s claim to the land, not necessarily on a perceived sense of cultural superiority which in turn justifies the taking of lands from “savage” or “unproductive” peoples, but rather, on the perceived superiority of their connection with “Nature”; a more often than not racialised sense of superiority wherein whiteness is framed as “belonging to” the landscape to an exceptional degree. 

If such natural ties to the land provide a form of indigenising relief for Fern then, by contrast, it becomes clear that she needs to let go of her historical ties to both Empire and empire. When, for the second time, Fern meets Derek – the young, love-letter writing nomad – she suggests that he try writing poetry for his girlfriend. When he tells her he does not know any poetry, she suggests the poem she used for her own wedding vows: “Alright. Let’s see if I can remember it… ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?…”, at which point she goes on to recite Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 in its entirety. As Fern’s recitation continues, the film cuts to a scene of her back inside her van, now looking through a photo viewer at pictures of her childhood. In this way, Fern’s memories anchor her not just to Empire, the town she has left behind, but to the empire of Europe, Shakespeare and tradition. To be stuck in her old world is, in a sense, to be stuck in the Old World. Later, in one of the film’s most affecting scenes, Fern speaks to Bob Wells about the memories which caused her to stay in Empire: 

I’ve been thinking a lot in the past year about why I didn’t just leave Empire when my husband Beau died. I could’ve left and started a new life sooner. But… I think I somehow made up my mind that if I just packed up and left, it would be as if Beau never existed… he loved Empire… So I stayed. Same town, same house. It’s like my dad used to say ‘what’s remembered, lives’. I might’ve spent too much of my life just… remembering.

If memory and history have tied Fern to a static life in Empire spent “just remembering”, her new life is characterised by a mobility punctuated by natural ties to the landscape. When at the end of the film, Fern returns to Empire to get rid of the possessions she had left there, the script action describes how those things “look foreign to her now”. With her decision to relinquish the historical ties which have bound her to Empire throughout her travels, the foreignness of her past possessions signals her own indigenisation. It is at this point that we see the view from Fern’s old house on the outskirts of Empire, which she had earlier described: “The backyard looked out at this huge open space. It’s just desert, desert, all the way to the mountains. There was nothing in our way”. The last we see of Fern is her driving back into this nothingness, another empty landscape. As Zhao describes it in the action, “the endless desert lies beyond, stretching all the way to the horizon.” 

For Zhao, there are two types of nomad, the first one is “really a nomad at heart, [a] true nomad, they belong there, whether they spend forty years in a house or not, but they were always meant to hit the road”. The second simply uses nomadism as “a means to an end… because they need to, they were forced out of their homes after 2008. And so then they spent many years on the road saving… so they can have a house again”. Fern, Zhao continues, “was always a true nomad deep inside… she belongs to the road, it’s not going to be easy, but that’s where she finds herself”.[20] What is striking here is not merely the fact that Zhao so closely parallels Veracini’s description of indigenisation, wherein the settler belongs to the land rather than the land to the settler, but that what makes the fictional character of Fern a “true nomad” hinges upon how she differs from the historical nomads which inspire the film’s source text, Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017).[21]

The authenticity of Fern as the “true nomad”, as Zhao tells us, is rooted in the fact that she “belongs to the road” and “finds herself there”. This is a sense of belonging which cannot be limited to the historical socio-economic ties that brought them there, but must instead depend on the affirmation of natural ties and belonging to the landscape; on a sense of inevitability. Rendered in this way, authenticity in the narrative is nothing but a measure of the settler subject’s indigenisation. Dealing with the specific nature of what is meant by authenticity here is crucial for understanding how, through the insertion of the “true nomad”, the affective reach of Nomadland is grounded in the exceptional ability of whiteness to exist in the landscape. Asked elsewhere about the casting of so-called “nonactors” in her films, Zhao refers to a comment made by Werner Herzog: “There’s no such thing as actors and nonactors, there’s only authentic performances and non-authentic performances”.[22] Here, once again, the historical must be moved aside in favour of an ill-defined sense of naturalness. Such a reframing speaks to the important role that the film industry plays within settler colonialism, as a space in which historical ties are replaced with a standard of authenticity which is always already a measure of settler indigenisation. In a sense therefore, in American cinema, the idea of an actor’s great performance – an authentic portrayal – is inevitably linked to what Philip J. Deloria called “playing Indian”[23]. Ultimately, Nomadland’s affective impact, and the sense of authenticity felt in McDormand’s performance should be understood within a colonialist standard of authenticity rooted in the indigenisation of whiteness – and the erasure of Indigenous sovereignty.

*

Patrick Turner is a PhD candidate based in the English department at King’s College London. His research focusses on the relationship between nature and colonialism in U.S. and Argentine fiction in the late nineteenth century.


Notes

[1] Nomadland, dir. by Chloé Zhao (Searchlight Pictures, 2020).

[2] TIFF Originals, NOMADLAND Q&A with Chloé Zhao, Frances McDormand | TIFF 2020, online video recording, YouTube, 12 Sep 2020, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jc8X-6HI9d4> [accessed 13 Sep 2021] .

[3] Shannon Speed, ‘Structures of Settler Capitalism in Abya Yala’, American Quarterly, 69 (2017), 783–790, 786.

[4] Patrick Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event (London and New York: Cassell, 1999), 2.

[5] Nick Estes, Our History is the Future (London: Verso, 2019), 67.

[6] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 444.

[7] Wolfe, 163; Deleuze and Guattari, 478.

[8] Ibid, 444.

[9] Ibid, 20.

[10] Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 16.

[11] Ibid, 14.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 13.

[14] Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London and New York: Verso, 2009), 145; Byrd, 13.

[15] Chadwick Allen, Blood Narrative: Indigenous Identity in American Indian and Maori Literary and Activist Texts. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2002, 9.

[16] Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 21–22.

[17] Ibid.

[18] TIFF Originals.

[19] Ibid.

[20] TIFF Originals.

[21] Jessica Bruder, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Norton, 2017).

[22] Emily Yoshida, ‘Chloé Zhao is Rethinking the Western’, Vulture, 12 April 2018 <https://www.vulture.com/2018/04/the-riders-chlo-zhao-is-rethinking-the-western.html> [accessed 13 September 2021].

[23] Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998).

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