Pedagogical Soundings: Teaching Sovereignty

This installment of Pedagogical Soundings, a collaboration between the AnthroPod and Teaching Tools sections of the Cultural Anthroplogy website, provides supplementary material to help instructors make use of the new AnthroBites episode on “Sovereignty,” in which contributing editor Siobhan McGuirk interviews Yarimar Bonilla, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University.

The lesson plan is structured to address the concept of sovereignty both before and after students listen to the podcast. Since the episode lasts only fifteen minutes, instructors can consider having students listen to it during class time, with the advantage of being able to address it while it is fresh in students’ minds. This lesson plan can flexibly fit within 45 to 75-minute class sessions. Alternately, it may be divided between two classes, with the podcast and readings given as homework assignments. 

The objectives of this lesson plan are to establish how students understand sovereignty before considering scholarly perspectives, and then to collectively reimagine the concept in a way that decenters and denaturalizes dominant Western assumptions about what sovereignty is, who it is for, and to what ends it is asserted.

There is potential for student pushback during the postlistening portion of the lesson plan when engaging with issues of Indigenous sovereignty, the Standing Rock protests, and recent U.S. elections. However, by introducing these topics later in the lesson plan—after students have spent time defining the concept themselves, talking in groups, collectively listening to the podcast, and taking positions on less controversial realms of sovereignty—the goal is to create a class environment in which students are engaging with polarizing issues from a different and more thoughtful perspective than if they were initially asked about their opinions on these topics. It is especialy important that students’ own definitions be emphasized in relation to the positions they are taking within these discussions, rather than starting from the perspective of party loyalties or racial/national privilege.

Before Listening

1. Write “sovereignty” on the board.

  • Tell students: before we discuss what sovereignty is, I want you to think about what images come to mind around this word, just your quickest associations at this very moment.
  • Then have students raise their hands and write their responses on the board so that they remain visible throughout the discussion.

2. Ask students to spend two minutes or so defining sovereignty in a single sentence, as they understand it presently.

  • Then, for five minutes or so, have students get into small groups and discuss their definitions.
  • Have a few students read their definitions out loud.
  • Ask students to describe what differences stood out between the definitions in their group.

3. Before playing the podcast, instruct them to think about and take notes on the meanings of sovereignty throughout the episode.

After Listening

1. After the episode ends, have them spend a minute or so revising their original definition, and have volunteers share these changes with the class.

2. Ask students: Based on what we have learned in this course more broadly, why do you think anthropologists are interested in sovereignty?  

3. Ask students to raise their hands, as a kind of straw poll, to indicate whether they imagine (some or all of) the following as sovereign, broadly speaking:

  • The United States
  • (the state you are in)
  • Native American Nations (in general or the most local specific one)
  • The United Nations
  • The European Union
  • Puerto Rico
  • Samoa
  • The Vatican
  • Tibet
  • A corporation
  • A home owner
  • Yourself

4. Ask students: when Yarimar Bonilla says that sovereignty is deployed “in different places to mean different things,” how does this relate to the difficulty of making such distinctions about sovereignty, which we just saw with those examples?

  • Ask students: for example, why is sovereignty particularly important for Indigenous people?
  • Ask students: how does sovereignty relate to the current political moment and the recent U.S. presidential election?
  • What does sovereignty mean in these different contexts?

5. Standing Rock

  • Very briefly remind students of the basic facts around the events at Standing Rock in 2016.                                               
  • Ask if anyone in class or anyone they know participated at all in the camps at Standing Rock, and if they would like to share.         
  • Ask how Standing Rock relates to Yarimar Bonilla’s assertion that sovereignty is “as much a claim about power as a claim about a lack of power.”                       
  • Show this short Democracy Now  video of Amy Goodman at Standing Rock.

6. Small group discussions                                              

  • Ask students: how does one’s perspective on sovereignty change and reframe what is going on in this video?                                             
  • Ask students: are these political dissidents, protesters, or lawbreakers? Or, are they members of a sovereign nation in the midst of an illegal international invasion that threatens their citizens’ access to basic resources, as well as their national/tribal sacred sites?
  • Afterwards, have students share with the whole class what their groups agreed and disagreed on and why.

7. If there is time, watch part or all of Karl Jacoby’s 16-minute video on U.S. Indian policy, sovereignty, and treaty-making.

  • Ask students how this background information informs or changes their views of Standing Rock.                                             
  • You could end on this one-minute clip of George W. Bush tautologically describing tribal sovereignty as sovereignty.                   
  • Emphasize that while the clip involves comedy, it also relates to the difficulty of describing and understanding this concept, even for a U.S. president.

Discussion Questions

Consider assigning Yarimar Bonilla’s essay “Unsettling Sovereignty,” which forms the basis of this episode of AnthroBites, for the following class in order to deepen the discussion begun around the podcast. The article may also be read in advance. This list of questions begins with the three primary questions that Bonilla herself poses:

  • How does the norm of sovereignty emerge and how has it been sustained?
  • How does it order forms of life and condition aspirations?
  • Which social orders does it enable and which does it disavow?
  • How have anthropological perspectives have contributed to a critical understanding of the concept of sovereignty? 
  • Why does the author argue that the language “unsettling” is more productive than “decolonizing”?

Further Readings

Some or all of the other four essays in the Retrospectives collection on “Sovereignty”

The Standing Rock Syllabus

Aboriginal Australia, role reversal, empathy, and futures

  • CNN article visually challenging the normalization of Indigenous subjugation.
  • Planeterra Nullius,” a very short sci-fi story reimagining the European colonialization of Australian through the analogy of extraterrestrials colonizing Earth.
  • A guide for teaching students about Native science fiction films, which reimagine Indigenous sovereignty into the future.