This guest post is published as part of our blog series in conjunction with the Organization of American Historians conference in Philadelphia from April 4-7, 2019. Share using #OAH19.
By Manu Karuka, author of Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad
In 1871, Stone Calf, a Cheyenne man, told an audience at New York’s Cooper Union, “Before they ever ploughed or planted an acre of corn for us they commenced to build railroads through our country. What use have we for railroads in our country? What have we to transport to other nations? Nothing. We are living wild, really living on the prairies as we have in former times.” In his statement, Stone Calf highlighted a persistent gulf between industrial development, in the vehicle of railroads, and his nation’s political economy. He invoked histories of independent trade, defying U.S. arrogations to sovereign control over Cheyenne lands, defying also the colonialist alibi of “improvement.” Prior to any attempt to impose ranching or agriculture on an industrial scale, he pointed out, the United States built railroads. Amidst these transformations, a distinctly Cheyenne way of life persisted.
Three years earlier, Americans had assembled at a place they recently christened “Promontory Point,” in a territory they claimed to control under the name of Utah, on a May afternoon. Political and business leaders, and journalists, had all traveled by rail, from the east and from the west, to arrive in time for the ceremony. A cohort of working people, carrying in their bones the accumulated dirt, wood, and steel that led them here, watched from a distance, some of them perhaps feeling a sense of envy, dreaming of their own possible futures, or perhaps sharing a sense of contempt at the uncalloused hands of power, detecting a certain nervousness among these barons of capital standing before the interrelated weight and gravity of sledge and stake. Two men, moving officiously, clothed in a desperate pompousness, anxiously projecting expectations of deference, stood at the center of the assembly. After a pause for photographs, as the gathered crowd watched, one of the men lifted a silver-tipped maul. Perhaps you could hear the breeze in the anticipatory hush, as he arced the hammer down toward a golden spike. He missed the spike altogether. The word “Done” was immediately telegraphed across the continent.
Leland Stanford’s failure at the climax of the golden spike ceremony to symbolically finish the first transcontinental railroad in North America was an act of truth. Against this failure, Stone Calf spoke to a collective lie, a mythology of the United States as a nation and not an empire. My book, Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad, follows in the trajectory of Stone Calf’s rebuttal. The domestication of this continent under a national political economy is no more “done” than was the domestication of Cheyenne collective life three years after the railroad. In this place called North America (among other names), we live and think in an ongoing situation of colonial occupation.
To sustain this argument, Empire’s Tracks introduces the concept of continental imperialism. To conceive of the United States in national terms is to cede the grounds of colonialism. There is no “national” territory of the U.S. There are only colonized territories. There is no “national” U.S. political economy, only an imperial one, which continues to be maintained, not through the rule of law, contract, or competition, but through the renewal of colonial occupation. In the U.S. framework, there is no “national” law that can be distinguished from conquest. The U.S. claims and maintains control over its “domestic” territories at the nexus of war and finance. The concept of continental imperialism helps us to understand that North America is not a space of settler nation-states, but rather, a space of hundreds of colonized Indigenous nations. Imperialism in North America, in other words, is a chain that is built out of weak links.
Empire’s Tracks is driven by a historical materialism that considers gender, race, and colonialism as starting points for a history of capitalism, examining the interrelationship of imperialist expansion with the structural legacies of slavery in the wake of emancipation. It locates the gendered relations of race and colonialism in the production of capital. It shows how the emergence of capitalism was and remains dependent on and reactive to the socially lived space and time of racialized and colonized people. It concludes with an analysis of imperialism in the current conjuncture, to argue that decolonizing North America is a significant anti-imperialist imperative.