Interdependence as a Lifeway: Decolonization and Resistance in Transnational Native American and Tibetan Communities

Natalie Avalos (UC Santa Barbara)

Struggles for decolonization are increasingly global and transnational. Colonization fosters massive diaspora migrations, either forced or out of necessity. These peoples, although residing outside of their home nations, continue to fight for the liberation of their peoples. While decolonization projects are diverse, they generally call for both the undoing of colonization as a structure and the removal of colonization’s effects. A core focus of many decolonization movements is resisting culture erasure through religious revitalization—the logic being religion constitutes the core values and traditions of a given community. When cultural identity is strengthened these communities are better able to resist colonial advances as well as practices of extermination. My research explores how the religious worldviews of transnational Native Americans and Tibetan communities living in the U.S. inform their respective movements for decolonization and resistance. Both of their religious traditions, though distinct, recognize a world in which all phenomena are interrelated. I ask, how does interdependence as a ‘lived’ tradition inform decolonization? In addition, what do Tibetan Buddhism and Native American religious traditions have to offer global movements for decolonization?

Native American religious traditions are rooted in a sacred relationship to the land, one’s community and the spirit world. The spirit world consists of the dynamic ‘life force’ immanent in all natural phenomena. Native American peoples cite an interdependent relationship to all natural phenomena as the fundamental logic driving the protection of sacred sites, sustainable ways of living and nationhood. Tibetan Buddhism combines land-based conceptualizations of interdependence to Buddhist philosophical concepts of ‘dependent origination’ –meaning that all phenomena are inextricably ‘dependent’ on one another—to theorize a unique form of interdependence. Buddhist ethics rooted in interdependence encourage empathy and compassion for all others, since they are ultimately an extension of one’s self. Living in diaspora contributes to myriad losses. However, ethnographic research among transnational Tibetan and Native American communities living in Santa Fe and Albuquerque illustrates that their religious traditions remain. The distance of diaspora has not tempered the desire to work for the betterment and liberation of their respective peoples—if anything it’s bolstered it. Due to a shared logic of ‘interdependence,’ working for the benefit of others is not framed as special or extraordinary but instead as a rational response to connectedness.

For Tibetans in Santa Fe, religious practice has taken on a new political dimension. Religion has historically played an integral role in Tibetan governance, what Tibetans referred to as chos srid gnyis ldan or “religion and politics combined.” The Dalai Lama served as both the spiritual and political leader of Tibetans, overseeing their spiritual and material welfare. Tibet never existed as a united polity as we understand nation-states today. The unifying thread among regional and sectarian differences was Buddhism. To be Tibetan was to be Buddhist. It was only after the Chinese invasion that a new ‘national’ in-group identity emerged, one united by Dharma but also in defense of the land against the ‘invading other.’ In exile, Tibetans make strategic use of this new pan-Tibetan identity, rallying non-Tibetans to join their cause. Thus, religious practice in diaspora has become infused with politics. Consultants state that they must preserve Tibetan culture for those in Tibet who are experiencing cultural genocide. One man says, “I feel even stronger, that I am Tibetan when I know that my countrymen are suffering.” They regularly gather at one another’s homes to pray and make offerings on behalf of those suffering in Tibet. Religious practice helps them assuage the pain and frustration they feel over Tibetan oppression. It is also intended to create merit. In essence, practice creates positive karma that will procure the causes and conditions for Tibet’s liberation. Because all phenomena are related, one’s words thoughts and actions are thought to have material and immaterial effects. Thus, prayers, the recitation of mantras and other Buddhist practices are done with the express intent to change the social conditions of Tibetan peoples. Even the activism on behalf of Tibet’s liberation, such as marches, rallies and petitions, are often pursued with the intention to help others, transforming these mundane events into ‘Dharmic activity.’

Native American peoples living in Albuquerque and Santa Fe live out a diverse set of religious practices. Like Tibetans, Native peoples were not a united polity before colonization. They are distinct tribes, with distinct languages and separate nation-to-nation treaties with the settler state. However, tools of assimilation, like the boarding school system that began in the late 19th century, and a federal relocation program in the middle 20th century, which transferred large numbers of Native peoples from reservations to urban centers for ‘employment opportunities,’ contributed to a pan-Indian identity that thrives today. The exchange of religion, belief and practice characterizes this pan-Indian identity. Historically, these exchanges have informed movements of resistance. For instance, religious revitalization catalyzed the Red Power Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. While most Native American religious traditions had to go ‘underground’ during the initial decades after the reservation system began in the latter 19th century, due to federal bans on ceremonies, such as the Sun Dance, many survived into the present. Some of most basic features of Native American religious traditions do not require elaborate ceremonies, but only prayer and contemplation. Many of my consultants emphasized that they could maintain a relationship to the spirit world, wherever they were, even if they were far away from their home tribes or had been living in diaspora for generations. I was told by one consultant, “the land is all around you. If you have water, earth, air and fire, you can pray. You can connect with Spirit.” For many, this religious practice was not only a testament to survival but also an active tool of resistance. Due to the interrelatedness of all phenomena, several of my consultants explained that prayer, ceremony and even speaking kind words ripple out into incalculable results—“like a pebble in a stream” one consultant said. Another consultant explained that the prayers of elders in the nearby pueblos shaped everything that happened in Albuquerque and even New Mexico, meaning these prayers had the power to contribute to structural and social change. Decolonization was described as maintaining healthy relationships to the spirit world, the land and one’s relations. An Apache man in his 60’s said “I don’t need a federal recognition card or to live on a reservation. This whole area is where Apaches lived. It’s my home. It’ll always be a part of me.” In this way, he recognizes these places as ‘Native land.’ He and the land are sovereign.

Although these communities are unrelated, they contend with parallel struggles for decolonization. They both hold provocative religious conceptualizations of interdependence that transform their religious practice into resistance and liberation. These religious traditions provide a new perspective on humanitarianism—one that differs from the liberal discourse from which it is currently situated. One need not be a ‘rational’ agent in the world in order to be worthy of humane treatment. These religious logics illustrate that the just and humane treatment of others is necessitated in world in with other’s are an extension of one’s self. The transnational spaces where these religious logics are actualized provide a unique platform for their proliferation. In fact, consultants in both the Tibetan and Native communities explained that these practices are sometimes for oneself, often for their own people but many times intended to end the suffering or oppression of all peoples. As one consultant says, “when you are oppressed, we are all oppressed.” In this way, we can understand the respective expressions of interdependence as a lifeway to translate to a form of anti-oppression politics facilitated through the spirit world. They also de-center materialist interpretations of social justice and resistance by positioning religious practice as an efficacious tool of resistance. In these transnational communities religious continuity is framed as a means of resistance that not only humanizes and empowers but is also contributes to global projects of decolonization by seeking the cessation of suffering and the continued vitality of all peoples.

Wounded Knee PBS: We Shall Remain—American Experience series

Description from PBS website:

On the night of February 27, 1973, fifty-four cars rolled, horns blaring, into a small hamlet on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Within hours, some 200 Oglala Lakota and American Indian Movement (AIM) activists had seized the few major buildings in town and police had cordoned off the area. The occupation of Wounded Knee had begun. Demanding redress for grievances—some going back more than 100 years—the protesters captured the world’s attention for 71 gripping days.

With heavily armed federal troops tightening a cordon around meagerly supplied, cold, hungry Indians, the event invited media comparisons with the massacre of Indian men, women, and children at Wounded Knee almost a century earlier. In telling the story of this iconic moment, the final episode of We Shall Remain will examine the broad political and economic forces that led to the emergence of AIM in the late 1960s as well as the immediate events—a murder and an apparent miscarriage of justice—that triggered the takeover. Though the federal government failed to make good on many of the promises that ended the siege, the event succeeded in bringing the desperate conditions of Indian reservation life to the nation’s attention. Perhaps even more important, it proved that despite centuries of encroachment, warfare, and neglect, Indians remained a vital force in the life of America.