Race/isms Book Forum is a new series aimed at bringing established and emerging voices together in conversation around recent work that critically engages our world’s racial scripts, past and present. The structure of the forum is straightforward. We invite three to four thinkers to grapple with a book, highlighting a section of it, and then provide the author(s) an opportunity to respond however they see fit. Published over several days, we seek and encourage dialogue that traverses the forum’s boundaries. Our desire is to have these conversations, and the books they’re based on, grow from and exceed what’s been written. The pursuit is possibility, not conclusion.
For our second installment, we feature and discuss Jaskiran Dhillon’s recently published ethnography: Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention. The discussion includes reflections by Melanie Yazzie, Shanya Cordis, and Sandra Harvey.
I am deeply honored to have such exceptional scholars share their insights on Prairie Rising. In the broadest sense, Prairie Rising is an ethnography of colonial state violence in the lives of urban Indigenous youth. As I explain in the opening pages, “written from the standpoint of an advocate and ethnographer, this book provides an account of Indigenous–state relations and does so to incite a series of critical reflections about the changing face of settler colonialism in Canada. To this end, I uncover how state agents, youth workers, and representatives from Indigenous and community organizations engage participatory politics in order to facilitate regimes of intervention in the lives of urban Indigenous youth living on the margins of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan’s largest city.” Each of the commentators in this forum speaks to dimensions of the book that are reflective of this larger aim. In doing so, they bring to light essential points about the book’s revelations and challenge us to think more deeply, and in more nuanced ways, about a number of the political arguments that I set forth throughout Prairie Rising. I offer brief reflections on their observations below.
Taking us directly to the heart of a material struggle for Native liberation, Melanie Yazzie draws on Prairie Rising as a springboard from which to ask urgent and fundamental questions about decolonization within the context of Indigenous life as it is experienced in occupied urban spaces. She observes, “carcerality and colonial gender violence — two key organizing concepts in the book — emerge from the specific context of urban life for Indigenous youth in a space that quite literally defines contemporary state power and Indigeneity in Canada.” Yazzie traces a line between Indigenous life in urban centers like Saskatoon and Winnipeg across the imposed US/Canadian border into cities like Albuquerque where the majority of Indigenous people today experience, contest, and endure settler colonialism (see, for instance, the work of The Red Nation). Yazzie makes a crucial point here and one that cannot and should not be understated: cities matter. They are Native places, as Yazzie clarifies, that represent an “indissoluble relationality to land and an entire network of relatives.” They are sites where Indigenous futures are being forged.
What also struck me about Yazzie’s commentary, however, was how centering the urban experience of Indigenous peoples necessitates critical engagement with the political strategies of anti-colonial organizing. In the latter part of her reflections, Yazzie highlights what she views as a central contradiction in the collective work of decolonization efforts that are “operating (unconsciously) in the popular framework of resurgence that asks people to “turn away” from the state as we develop our decolonial praxis.” Yazzie persuasively encourages us to think about how this practice of turning away has the potential to create zones of abandonment if we don’t also orient our anti-colonial praxis towards the actual institutional/state spaces where the majority of Indigenous peoples (including large numbers of Native youth) are caught, caged, and confined. Yazzie, in other words, is offering vital acumen on what it means to organize effective and wide-reaching liberation movements by asking: where can we deliver the greatest blows to settler colonialism? Where might we need to (re)focus our attention given the disciplinary tactics and expanding nexus of settler state power that is flourishing in urban centers across Turtle Island? What happens if we don’t?
Pushing our frame of understanding outside of occupied United States and Canada, Shanya Cordis begins her commentary by reminding us that the imperial settler logics demonstrated in Prairie Rising must be situated within ongoing transnational contexts and that these logics must be read in reference to numerous decolonial social movements across the globe (see, for example, the connection to Palestine and the more recent experiences of Mexican migrants in the United States). More specifically, Cordis extends and critically assesses the intended analytic contributions of Prairie Rising by “thinking through the place of blackness in relationship to the settler colonial project and the possibilities for crafting livable decolonial futures across difference.” In my mind, this is a deeply important entry point for considering how both Indigenous and Black youth are intentionally targeted by the state, both rendered expendable (as Cordis says), but in different ways, both constructed as criminal and threatening to settler social order. How would our understanding of colonial violence and the machinery of the settler governance shift if we examine the gratuitous forms of violence in the lives of Black and Native youth side by side, especially when we take into account the scope and character of colonial violence for Black and Native young women and girls? Indeed, what I found so powerful about Cordis’ insights was that she makes clear that this is not about overriding one set of lived realities with another, but rather understanding how colonial state violence against Native and Black youth is co-constitutive — both are central to continuance of the settler colonial project, both are pervasive in the present, and both date back to the colonial founding of the settler states of Canada and the USA. Those of us interested in youth studies would do well to pay heed to understanding these intersections and the co-constitutive character as it plays out in the contemporary moment.
Taking this discussion one step further, Cordis also stresses (and quite rightly I think) that we need to critically reconsider how we think about the politics of refusal and resistance, especially the possibility for decolonial praxis to move both within and across anti-colonial social movements. She importantly asks: What are the conditions of decolonial accompliceship, of creating and sustaining a decolonial movement in geographies (now Canadian and US nation-states) that allow us to see (and read) blackness and indigeneity in these spaces/territories? If I am reading Cordis correctly here, this emphasis on critical accomplice building and politicized solidarity is fundamental if we acknowledge that Black and Indigenous liberation (and I would also add the liberation of many others) are intimately bound to one another. In reading the commentary by Cordis, I was reminded of Joanne Barker’s recent article “The Corporation and the Tribe.” While offering a critical analysis of the Occupy Wall Street with respect to Indigenous social movements for self-determination, Barker explains: “The kind of social transformations needed can only happen from a place of genuine understanding — compassionate, respectful, and informed — about all of the historical and social complexities of oppression and exploitation that inform the perceptions and experiences of our communities.” This is timely and essential insight.
Finally, Sandra Harvey’s commentary on Prairie Rising brings to the fore how the social construction of the problems facing Indigenous youth, as identified by the settler colonial state of Canada, must be considered as part of larger state governance practices emphasizing the neo-liberal responsibility of the self (something I attempt to make clear in the book as well). Aligning with Cordis on underlining the mark of the racial, Harvey adeptly argues that this neo-liberalization of the self is intimately linked to a kind of racial liberalism that regulates social difference through the politics of recognition and ultimately aims to absorb colonized peoples into the multicultural fabric of the settler state. Harvey also brilliantly conjoins this emphasis on racial liberalism with the arguments on “risk” that I set forth in the book. She articulates this powerfully when she says, “thus, race, choice, and risk must be understood together as core components of neoliberal colonial violence — both at the level of the concept and at the level of the flesh.” This made me consider, and consider again, the importance of understanding the ways that the colonial violence documented throughout Prairie Rising becomes embodied over time and on multiple scales.
Harvey concludes her reflection on the question of sovereignty and its relationship to various struggles for decolonization. Harvey, like many other scholars (see, for instance, Joanne Barker’s edited collection Critically Sovereign, Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus, Kevin Bruyneel’s The Third Space of Sovereignty, and Manu Karuka’s recent article “Black and Native Visions of Self-Determination” for excellent discussions on this point), alerts us to the challenges of positioning sovereignty as a political end goal. The discourse and practice of sovereignty is interwoven with the settler colonial project — it puts forward a prefigured political blueprint for imaging alternative forms of governance for colonialized peoples, in some ways still controlling the terms of freedom and liberation. While I was doing the research and writing for Prairie Rising, this question of sovereignty as a political end goal was taken, somewhat, a priori. I do believe, however, that complicated terrain upon which sovereignty is being pursued and contested demands that we do as Harvey suggests and consider how, in fact, decolonization “might involve an imaginative epistemological stance and practice aimed at violating the fantasy of sovereignty as well as the colonial project.” Perhaps the Indigenous, Black, and other youth of color who are at the forefront of so many anti-colonial movements — while also fighting for their lives — should be leading us in a deliberation about these critical questions.
I know each of these scholars is deeply committed to an anti-colonial intellectual and political project. Their willingness to participate in this book forum has certainly made me think harder about various aspects of Prairie Rising — its limits as well as potential launch-points for organizers and scholars taking this work forward to its next iteration. For this, I am immensely grateful.
Jaskiran Dhillon is a first generation anti-colonial scholar and organizer who grew up on Treaty Six Cree Territory in Saskatchewan, Canada. Her work spans the fields of settler colonialism, anthropology of the state, anti-racist and Indigenous feminism, youth studies, colonial violence, and Indigenous studies. Jaskiran is an associate professor of global studies and anthropology at The New School and a member of the New York City Stands with Standing Rock Collective.