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We Will Not Abandon You

Urban Indigenous Youth and the Struggle for Decolonization

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.

Jaskiran Dhillon’s Prairie Rising has many dimensions. Scholars within Indigenous studies, youth studies, and education have offered detailed reviews of the book’s many contributions to these fields. Although I, too, am a scholar whose primary intellectual home is Indigenous studies, I would like to concentrate my comments here on an aspect of the book that has not received quite as much attention. I would like to talk about the book’s contributions to decolonization — not the theorization of decolonization, per se, but the actual material struggle for liberation that decolonization names.

In the book’s introduction, Dhillon includes a brief section entitled “Saskatoon: The Here and Now of Place” that provides a textured ethnographic description of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Saskatoon is the setting for Prairie Rising, which is a detail that matters when considering the book’s relevance to decolonization. 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. As Dhillon notes, Saskatoon is behind only Winnipeg in having the largest Indigenous population of any city in Canada, and a majority of this population is under 35. In Saskatchewan as a whole, “an astounding 88 per cent of youth in custody are Indigenous, and young Indigenous men are more likely to go to prison that to finish high school” (108). These numbers reflect contemporary life for Indigenous peoples in the United States as well, where the majority of Indigenous peoples today live in border towns or larger cities like Albuquerque, and where over 50% of our population is under the age of 24, which according to the United Nations is the cut off age to be legally classified as “youth.” Like our First Nations counterparts in Canada, Native people in the US also experience high rates of police shootings and incarceration.

It is thus important to highlight the specific context of Saskatoon not only because this is where Dhillon chooses to situate her ethnography, but because this city represents the spaces and zones where the majority of Indigenous people today experience, contest, and endure settler colonialism. The urban landscape of east Saskatoon, with its large population of Indigenous youth, describes the “here and now” of Indigeneity, which helps to explain exactly why colonial governmentality (another concept that Dhillon mobilizes throughout the book) has turned its panoptic gaze towards Indigenous youth in this city, employing its primary form of power, carcerality, to police their lives. As Dhillon argues in the book’s conclusion, “Through their existence as Indigenous youth, these young people constitute a direct threat to an already existing settler social order” (106). In other words, where Indigenous futures take root and spread, where Indigeneity is present by sheer fact of high numbers and mobility, colonial governmentality will certainly follow. Filled with unease, the settler state designs and enforces carceral technologies to contain the threat of this undeniable Indigenous presence because the business of settlement cannot be settled so long as Indigenous peoples exist. For our bodies in space — yes, even urban space — represent an indissoluble relationality with land and, indeed, an entire network of relatives. Not only do we refuse to disappear, we refuse to stop making kin.

This capacious, alive materiality terrifies the settler state. And it is growing into a movement for decolonization that we have not seen in more than a generation.

In the book’s conclusion, Dhillon asks, “How does decolonial praxis shift when we put Indigenous youth at the centre of our political strategies for radical social transformation? (237). She later concludes that “Finding ways to support Indigenous youth who are part of this frontline resistance work should be foundational to the way we are thinking about decolonization and Indigenous resurgence” (247). Dhillon’s comments here reflect the character of Indigenous resistance in 2018. Indeed, urban Indigenous youth, as the literal majority, materiality, and future of our existence, have been at the center — and in the lead — of our decolonial efforts. Not as wounded subjects lacking experience and in need of our (patronizing) compassion and guidance, but as leaders (especially womxn and femmes). Although the terrain of political struggle is always rife with internal battles over who (usually a man) gets to claim leadership and heroic origin stories, we’d be well served to remember that the Indigenous resistance of our contemporary moment would not have come to pass had it not been for the fierce and stunning efforts of Indigenous youth.

Saskatoon was the birthplace of the historic Idle No More movement, which in 2012 kickstarted a wave of large-scale Indigenous resistance in North America that reached its crescendo four years later with the NoDAPL uprising in Standing Rock. Because of Saskatoon’s significance within the overall landscape of contemporary Indigeneity, resistance, and colonial power, it is neither surprising nor coincidental that Idle No More emerged from this space. Dhillon alludes to this when she says, “the Canadian government…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… It is not an accident that the lives of urban Indigenous youth are so heavily constrained by the state” (71). And despite the devastation of everyday carcerality in Saskatoon, there is real, material life; real, material futurity embodied by Indigenous youth; and real, material resistance to settler colonialism.

Yet, our thinking about decolonization and Indigenous resurgence in this historical moment and in these political circumstances seems to me, incomplete. One of the central contradictions I see in our collective work towards decolonization lies in how we invest our energies in alternatives to colonial state power without creating zones of abandonment in the process. I see this contradiction operating (unconsciously) in the popular framework of resurgence that asks Indigenous people to “turn away” from the state as we develop our decolonial praxis. Dhillon’s unflinching commitment to the lives and futures of urban Indigenous youth begs us to think critically about this contradiction. As Dhillon argues repeatedly, colonial governmentality morphs and shifts to find new sites of disciplinary investment. In turning away from the state, do we not also turn away from these new material zones of investment that ensnare and strangulate the majority of our relatives? In assuming that only certain spaces and zones (i.e. “the bush” or “the land”) are worthy of our decolonial investment, do we not turn away from the actual spaces and the actual realities inhabited by our youth? Do we not turn away from our own present, as well as our future?

Indeed, the book points out that where the disciplinary gaze of settler state power shines its spotlight, where the majority of our relatives are trapped and confined, so, too, must we direct our anti-colonial and decolonial efforts. The level of state investment in these zones — border towns, cities, and other carceral spaces that ensnare and cage our youth — should demonstrate to us that these spaces matter a great deal to the settler state and its future interests in maintaining and reproducing hegemony. They are thus also spaces that should matter to those of us who wish to organize effective liberation movements. These are the zones where we can deliver the greatest blows to settler colonialism; where we can unleash what Dhillon calls an “arsenal of resistance” to the greatest gain. Dhillon has told me that she hopes Prairie Rising sparks a conversation about these critical matters of decolonization. It certainly has for me.

Melanie K. Yazzie (Diné) is Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico. She specializes in Diné studies, Indigenous feminist and queer studies, American Indian history, social and political theory, critical environmental studies, and the history of social movements. Outside of the academy, she serves as the 2018-19 chair of the Central Governing Council for The Red Nation, a Native-led organization that advocates for the liberation of Indigenous people from colonialism and capitalism.

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