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Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention

Race/isms Book Forum

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. While our contributors address the book as a whole, we begin with an edited excerpt that draws from the introduction and the book’s first chapter.

*****

My cell phone rings as I meander along the path. It is Nitânis. “Where are you?” she asks, her voice hurried and louder than normal. “Closer than you think,” I respond, laughing.

Collapsed into a government file, Nitânis’s labyrinthine existence would look something like this: Family breakdown. Child welfare apprehension. Attempted suicide. Sibling death. Addiction. Rape. Gang involvement. Teen pregnancy. Criminality. Street life. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Homelessness. Service resistance (revolving door syndrome). Post-traumatic stress disorder. Drop out. Prison. Welfare. Mental illness. Runaway. Probation. Truancy. The institutions of the state that acted on her were manifold; the intrusions spanned close to twenty- five years. Formal government intervention began from the time Nitânis was two years old and was apprehended when her biological parents “disappeared.” Shortly thereafter, she was placed in an adoptive home, with white parents, and lived there with one of her siblings, separated from her other brothers and sisters. A few years later, Nitânis entered the complicated terrain of foster care after she discovered the body of her sibling, who had committed suicide. Her adoptive parents determined they could not adequately support her bouts of “acting out,” which commenced following this traumatic loss, and she began bouncing among family foster placements, group homes, and life on the street. As a ward of the state, social workers played a primary role in determining Nitânis’s fate from this point forward.

In one setting, foster parents forced Nitânis to live in the basement, quarantined from the “real” children and entertained by an old black and white television set. For nutrition, she received a bologna sandwich in a paper bag that was dropped on the first step of the staircase leading down to the basement. “Garbage food,” she called it. In another home, located in a rural community, her foster dad sexually assaulted her and was never charged. She ran away. All of her foster care placements were with white families.

Nitânis was exploited by men who commodified her body and threatened to break her spirit through repeated acts of sexual violation and emotional harm. This violence started when she was 11, building on many prior experiences of sexual assault. In order to secure her most basic needs, Nitânis, along with other girls, was forced to “turn tricks” in a place named “Bubble Gum Avenue.” For a short while, she lived with a group of friends in a single hotel room on the Westside of Saskatoon, in a neighborhood where no one asked questions if you could pay with cash. They divided up expenses for room, board, and drugs. Each girl was responsible for generating her share of the required costs — it was how they survived. Today, most of these girls are dead.

At 15, Nitânis ended up in prison, and her record of criminal charges began to metastasize. She served three consecutive years in youth detention for one of the charges. Daily school attendance had long since been interrupted, and she never returned to formal education after the age of 12.

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. To be clear, this book is not about the personal suffering of Nitânis or the sensationalizing of her individual story – her reality speaks to that of many. In fact, to claim that Nitânis’s life is a unique instance of marginalization is a gross misrepresentation both of the larger narrative and of statistical evidence that suggests quite the opposite. Instead, I am interested in turning an analytic gaze towards the shifting logics of the Canadian government that seek to address lives like hers. While Nitânis has, without a doubt, been shaped by a long colonial history, it is equally true that her life is being managed and addressed through new state assemblages that coexist alongside powerful Indigenous political claims to self-determination and indictments over dispossession. Governance changes form; it reinvents itself in accordance with historically emergent contexts and ongoing colonial interactions. And in nation states with a lasting settler presence, where there is a deliberate intention to permanently displace Indigenous populations from territories to which they have an inherent right, the stakes are especially high when it comes to the maintenance of settler sovereignty.

*****

The reproduction of the colonial structure of dominance upon which Canada rests is dependent on the state’s ability to entice Indigenous peoples to “come to identify, either implicitly or explicitly, with the profound asymmetrical and non-reciprocal forms of recognition imposed on or granted to them by the colonial-state and society.” In other words, recognition by a settler colonial state cannot be understood as a source of freedom and dignity, but should be seen rather “as the field of power through which colonial relations are produced and maintained.” Within this matrix of settler colonial smoke and mirrors, Indigenous subjects, as mediated by and through state policies and processes, come to associate with “white liberty and white justice” and come to see the forms of structurally limited and constrained recognition conferred on them by the state as their own and as “a political antidote to historical wrongdoing.” The locus of imperial control, then, extends beyond political and economic institutions to meaning making in the world as understood and propagated by the consciousness and self-reflective capabilities of the colonized. On the mediation of subjectivity, Fanon reminds us that “because it is a systematic negation of the other person and a furious determination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity, colonialism forces people it dominated to ask themselves constantly the question, ‘In reality, who am I?’” In settler nation states, acquiring a political subjectivity that exists outside the rationales of the state, when one is enmeshed in all of its institutions and is required so to be as a result of the impress of economic pressures, is a tall order. How does a person resist internalizing the everyday social practices and sensibilities of the social world contained in the political spaces she occupies?

While this recognition, an outwardly less coercive form of managing Indigenous political difference, may seem a virtuous and celebratory multicultural performance, “the trick of tolerance” or of beneficence with no strings attached may actually extend the power of settlement through the language and practices of democratic inclusion. As witnessed in the recent Indigenous resistance to state-sanctioned resource extraction in Elsipogtog, a politics of recognition does come with a series of interconnected gendered, raced, and classed strings that extend out from the beginnings of this settler colonial story. Hence, when the “problem” of difference and alterity is too much of an affront to settler society – that is, when it poses a direct threat to settler desires, to the rules of governing that are enshrined in the laws and policies of the social institutions that circumscribe everyday life (law, economics, health, justice, education) in Canada – then that difference is contained with whatever means are deemed necessary to reinstate settler order, norms, and secure access to, and ownership of, land. Guns, beatings, unlawful arrests, lock-up, intimidation, and legal instruments are all fair and legitimate in the processes of reinstatement. Periods of democratic inclusion, then, are interrupted by fits and bursts of settler colonial violence that work to reinforce the illusion of geopolitical stability and the seemingly indomitable power dynamic reflected in this social order. It is another way of communicating, “You may play this game of inclusion, but you will play it on my terms. I reserve the right to pull out of the game at any time, without warning. And in case you didn’t know this already, I hold the key to restarting the game.”

Within the context of an ongoing settler colonial project, it is essential that we be vigilant about closely examining state-led “reparative justice” projects that ostensibly aim to rectify historical wrongs. In To Right Historical Wrongs, a section Carmella Murdocca outlines how race-based and restorative approaches to sentencing work to entrench rather than alleviate certain forms of racism and sexism (and there are severe implications for Indigenous women in this regard), especially when they are structured as appeals to culture difference. In other words, even though it may appear that the Canadian state is progressively tackling the mass incarceration of Indigenous peoples by requiring judges to consider “contextual factors” such as colonialism, displacement, and residential schools when determining sentencing for Indigenous offenders, such provisions prevent a focus on present-day systemic injustice that arguably produces the conditions for the invention of criminality and subsequent arrest of Indigenous peoples and the provisions support as well a persistent colonial management of racialized and Indigenous people through a social institution that is very much still caught up in the production of Indigenous and racialized subjects. On this point, Murdocca writes, “This obscurity highlights the realization that even as the state attempts to address national responsibility in law through this sentencing provision, the state remains committed to an understanding of over-incarceration rates in which it officially severs the relationship between colonial injustice and contemporary incarceration rates. This result reveals the limitations in the ability of the criminal justice process to attend to forms of marginalization and structural violence.” Things, in other words, are not always what they seem.

It also merits stating that the Canadian state’s preoccupation with identifying ways to “improve” the social conditions of Indigenous peoples, one of the most salient rationales for engaging recognition-based forms of governing, can be read as a quintessential colonial move linked to the settler state’s need to legitimate itself as benevolent, as exercising a form of colonial care bent on saving a dying race. The mark of the racial, then, is always to need assistance into modernity. And when the racial is cast as such, the settler state must become adept at producing portraits of Indigenous self-destruction and dysfunction – as remnants always living on the edge, on the brink of death; colonial subjects in need of settler state rescue.

Finally, under the lens of critical scrutiny, it is clear that this latest approach to the governing of Indigenous peoples produces yet another tangible consequence: it positions Canada in the temporal space of the postcolonial. That is, in its move towards a space of “common goals” and “mutual respect and recognition,” Canada claims to have shed the skeletons of its imperialist roots and entered a fresh era with respect to its approach towards Indigenous nations. This new era was ushered in, concretely, by adopting a mode of governing that claims to place value on Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices and by apologizing for its historic mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. The attempted creation of this Lockean tabula rasa also functions to obscure and circumvent a distinct focus on Indigenous sovereignty and Indigenous resurgence that aims to transcend the very existence of the Canadian settler state. A settler colonial politics of recognition works to cover this up when elevated to a conceptual means for comprehending the stakes of political contestations over identity and difference in this colonial context. In obscuring the consequences of this new logic of governing, Canada’s illusion of postcolonial arrival legitimizes its own existence as a nation and reroutes questions of land rights, identity, culture, and place within and through this newly granted legitimacy.

It is my contention that urban Indigenous youth are entangled in this messy terrain of recognition that has gained a material foothold through the participatory endeavors I explore in this book. The regulatory programs that dictate the rules under which these young people live and that consequently make only certain ways of being in the world possible are clear examples of how the destinies of young people are being determined by a constellation of factors outside of their immediate control. Recognition politics work to recode the logics of settler colonial social policy through the discourse and practice of an ambiguous apparatus of participation that does little to shift dynamics of power. And, as I explain in the following chapters, it is not an accident that the lives of urban Indigenous youth are so heavily constrained by the state; the Canadian government (both federally and provincially) has a vested interest in curtailing the political, critical consciousness of these youth, as well as of the generations of Indigenous descendants yet to come, in order to maintain the sanctity of the Canadian nation and to keep the possibility of large scale Indigenous resistance at bay – in nations where settlement has yet to reach its final stage of completion, possibility is enough of a threat. To clarify, I am not suggesting that all state agents are deliberately trying to engage in acts of subjugation and suppression. Instead, I contend that the systems in which state agents work and the power/knowledge nexus which informs their work are linked to an overarching set of beliefs about who these young people are and what they should become. Indeed, the severe marginalization experienced by these young people and the material dispossession and suffering that continues unabated under such regimes of governing remain so great that they now occupy a place in global deliberations over Canada’s compliance with international treaties and several conventions to which it is a signatory.

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.

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