Mead on Buss and Genetin-Pilawa, 'Beyond Two Worlds: Critical Conversations on Language and Power in Native North America'

James Joseph Buss, C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa, eds.
Chelsea M. Mead

James Joseph Buss, C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa, eds. Beyond Two Worlds: Critical Conversations on Language and Power in Native North America. Tribal Worlds: Critical Studies in American Indian Nation Building Series. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014. Illustrations. 331 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4384-5341-5; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4384-5342-2.

Reviewed by Chelsea M. Mead (Minnesota State University) Published on H-AmIndian (July, 2016) Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe

The Many and Complex Worlds of Indigeneity

Recently, I visited Coast Salish territories in what is commonly known as Vancouver. One afternoon as I stood next to the Arthur Laing Bridge, I was also standing in c̓əsnaʔəm in the Musqueam territory. As I stood there, I caught a glimpse of multiple worlds existing within a particular place and space across time: an ancient village, burial site, former gas station, portion of the urban landscape with metal fences, concrete slabs, highway overpasses, and busy streets. Like a multitude of other scholars and communities in Indigenous studies across Turtle Island, the Musqueam nation and allies are working to disrupt the hegemonic narrative of colonialism and illuminate the multiple worlds of the past, present, and future with three exhibits and partnerships as part of c̓əsnaʔəm: the city before the city. Negotiating colonial worlding practices and subsequent efforts of erasure while working to reconstitute understandings with Indigenous insight, culture, and presence is an ongoing endeavor that Indigenous peoples have been engaged in for over four centuries.

In Beyond Two Worlds, editors James Joseph Buss and C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa bring together a cohort of fifteen scholars who offer readers a multidimensional examination of the histories, practices, and challenges of two-world understandings in North America. The discourse and ideology of two-world binaries soaks the ideological and linguistic landscapes of settler colonialism to the point that these ideologies are pervasively normalized within the dominant and marginalized cultures. Over the past several decades, scholars, activists, and allies have sought to decentralize these dichotomies of Indigenous versus Western culture, traditionalism versus modernity, and Indigenous versus Western knowledge. Beyond Two Worlds contributes to this effort by offering examinations of two-worlding, its language, frameworks, and manifestations across a broad stroke of time, space, place, and cultures. The strength of the collection lies in the broad and diverse offerings that work to dismantle, engage, and complicate these dichotomies.

Indigeneity, historical and present, is similar to practices of worlding in that it “is at once rich with cohesion as well as contradiction,” and the authors of this text powerfully illustrate this dynamic in their essays (p. 1). Together, the authors in this edited volume demonstrate how “the binaries underlying the two-worlds trope manifest themselves in real ways for Native people day in and day out” (p. 5). The ideological underpinnings of the two-world framework are the offspring of colonization and they have evolved over time to serve as the basis and support of institutionalized ethnocentrism. What is ultimately offered in this text is a historical and contemporary examination of the imagined and real differences placed into this two-world framework. The text itself is a representation of the many worlds lived on a daily basis as people, both Indigenous and ally, navigate the present manifestations of the past and construct the nature of their futures. The authors refract the multiple worlds within their essays, frameworks, and engagement with the two-world ideology.

The volume is organized into four parts with an interlude essay after each where prominent scholars engage the essays of that particular section and respond to the larger themes. Part 1 explores the development of the two-world framework in the foundational history of the United States and Indian-white relationships. Part 2 and 3 explore the discourse of the two-world framework historically and in contemporary contexts. The authors challenge the reader to consider multiple forms of worlding and the impact of these ideologies in action alongside the reality of lived lives negotiating worlds in a network of worlds. The text concludes with part 4 providing new frameworks and methodologies that scholars may pursue to transcend beyond the two-world trope. The editors of this volume are successful in providing a space where conversations between individual scholars can occur about a history, an experience, and an ideology prevalent in Indigenous lives and scholarship.

The source of the book’s strength and contribution to scholarship is the breadth and variety of the contributors’ engagement with the two-worlds dynamic that is prevalent in Native American and colonial discourse. While this volume focuses on North America, its subject material and engagements with the framework will be of interest for scholars working on Indigenous histories and issues in a global context. The chapters move in a broad chronological fashion, but the topics and directions of each individual author provide a kaleidoscope of understandings that any scholar engaged in Indigenous scholarship will find at once familiar and yet challenging. Readers move through the text identifying examinations that resonate with their own lens of understanding and scholarship and then encounter an unfamiliar narrative or lens that may even challenge the previous essay. The editors prepare readers for this experience, acknowledging that “some [authors] outright reject the two-world framework, others attempt to explain how it has functioned in the past, still others attempt to problematize our very understanding of how it functions in historical and contemporary settings” (p. 8). There are no concrete answers in this text to guide readers in their relationship with the two-world dynamic. Instead, the volume follows Terry Tafoya’s principle of uncertainty (1995).[1] In Research Is Ceremony, Shawn Wilson explains the principle as the fact that “it is not possible to know both the context and the definition of an idea at the same time. The closer you get to defining or explaining an idea, the more it loses its context. At the same time, the more the context of an idea is explained, the further you get from its definition or focus.”[2] Moving through the essays of this volume, the authors bring the reader back and forth between the context of worlding events and practices and a shifting focus or understanding of the two-world dynamic. I use dynamic because these essays illustrate how malleable and diverse two-worlding has been in Indigenous history and can continue to be in the present.

The same source of this text’s strength also presents its challenge. While the volume is organized in a semi-chronological and thematic manner, the diversity of understanding and engagement leaves the volume’s essays thinly connected through the two-world dynamic. Approaching the text with relational understanding, however, reveals that what might appear as broad connection between the essays is rather the deep strength and manifestation of the very complexities, process, and ideology under examination. Understanding requires a synthesis of context and particular content, and this volume does so across vast amounts of time, places, and peoples in minute and wide-ranging fashions, which accurately reflect part of the worlding experience in Indian Country.

The challenge for any reader will be integrating that diversity into the larger analytical engagement of these worlding practices and understanding how they have and perhaps have not existed simultaneously across so many contexts. What the author is left with is the central power of ideological frameworks by others affecting Indigenous lives; the internalization and action by Indigenous peoples on this framework; and the simultaneous reconfiguration, refusal, and sheer absence of this framework and ideology other than our conceptualizations. Malinda Maynor Lowery, Kathryn Magee Labelle, Kristalyn Marie Shefveland, Buss, and George Ironstrack illustrate the central power of language in worlding by examining language changes in Lumbee homelands, the rhetoric of death among the Wendat, correspondence in early Virginia, archiving practices of historical materials, and Myaami revitalization. Several authors disrupt the supposed dichotomy and distance between Native and non-Native lives by investigating the intricate and interwoven economics of capitalism and wage labor markets with multiple populations of peoples. Ian D. Chambers, Genetin-Pilawa, Cathleen D. Cahill, and Coll Thrush provide captivating essays that employ spatial analyses. Specifically, Thrush reminds the reader, “the Earth and the specific ways in which human people inhabit it” are critical to knowing the multiple worlds that simultaneously exist in particular places and in place stories (p. 295). Genetin-Pilawa writes a provocative examination of Washington, DC, as a place of Native American diplomatic envoys challenging the very icons and artwork within the city contributing to a two-world ideology of settler colonialism. The final essays of Beyond Two Worlds offer new directions for scholars to pursue and challenge how we might approach understanding the interactions, relationships, and dynamics of peoples in the past and present.

Brian Hosmer asks “are we thinking about the lives Indigenous people led, and lead, or really referencing American (and settler colonial) anxieties” and “is in between ness about historical actors or about historians?” (p. 247). Sande Garner argues for scholars to be attentive to “complex personhood,” which “uncovered lived experience—contradictions, recognitions, misrecognitions, being stuck, and being transformed” (p. 271). Thrush argues in the afterword, “There is only one world, one that was profoundly contested and engaged by people with wildly divergent understandings of land, law, and belonging” echoed in that moment (p. 302). These and the other scholars in this volume challenge readers to consider where the two-world dichotomy truly lives and consider its impact on the lives of people, Native and non-Native.

Returning home from c̓əsnaʔəm, the message and lessons of Beyond Two Worlds continue to resonate with me and move with me as I move across Turtle Island. This collection of essays is a valuable contribution to scholars and community members alike. It illustrates that the reality of the two-world trope is never complete, constantly contested, and is perhaps more of a folk story granted more power than it deserves in historical analysis. The landscape out our windows, no matter where one finds oneself, is contextualized space, layered with multiple histories and understandings of self, peoplehood, and worlds. Thrush addresses it best in the afterword: “None of us, Indigenous or settler, can escape the basic fact that we live inside this history. The best we can do is muddle through, with some clarity about our intentions and discernment regarding the ways in which the stories we create all too often replicated the narratives that facilitated conquest in the first place” (p. 315).


[1]. Terry Tafoya, “Finding Harmony: Balancing Traditional Values with Western Science in Therapy,” Canadian Journal of Native Education 21 (Supplement) (1995): 7-27.

[2]. Shawn Wilson, Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2008), 99.

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Citation: Chelsea M. Mead. Review of Buss, James Joseph; Genetin-Pilawa, C. Joseph, eds., Beyond Two Worlds: Critical Conversations on Language and Power in Native North America. H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews. July, 2016. URL:

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