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.

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Citizen Architects: Ethics, Education and the Construction of a Profession, 1933-2013

Anna G. Goodman (UC Berkeley)

My research considers the idea of the citizen architect as an evolving concept in the twentieth-century United States. Specifically, it traces how a form of hands-on and outreach education called “community design-build” shapes architects’ ethical and political identities. Community design-build is an umbrella term for programs in which architectural educators lead students into disadvantaged areas to physically construct designs for community use. American architectural educators argue that in this “win-win” scenario, students master building techniques while aiding a neglected population. The pairing of physical labor and social values, in a profession not known for either, defies standard accounts of the nature of architects’ ethical commitments. Most writing on community design-build focuses on either the benefit of programs for student learning or the positive impacts of projects on the lives of individuals and communities. I instead ask what motivates architects to pursue this mode of practice at specific historical and geographic moments, and what types of politics are practiced as design students encounter poor others. Drawing from social histories of welfare in the United States and feminist readings of political economy, the project considers three significant cases of design-build education from the 1930s, 1960s and 1990s. In so doing, it demonstrates that architects’ humanitarian commitments arise in cycles as responses to shifts in national attitudes towards race, inequality and work. Architects’ reflexive response to what they perceive as periodic crises of nation and profession consists of a celebration of the physical labor of construction and an emphasis on communal spaces and experiences. Professionals and educators understand the practice of “building together” as an alternative to and critique of both capitalist development and state-sponsors social welfare programs. Yet, their alternative practices often reproduce normative dynamics. They elevate architects’ voices over those for whom they build, support a narrow range of acceptable critical positions and, ultimately, obscure the structural conditions that produce the crises into which they intervene. In short, the “can-do” attitude that empowers students and volunteers diverts attention from the efforts of marginalized groups whose individual and collective contributions to alternative political visions are left unacknowledged in the citizen architect narrative.

Architects’ ethical commitments, and specifically community design-build, connect to a larger landscape of humanitarian engagements and religious affinities through their performative nature. Rather than working from ideological standpoints, design-build programs allow architects to practice ethics by placing their bodies in foreign territories and then performing “service” in these spaces. This type of humanitarian engagement is familiar from Christian missionaries, early twentieth-century work camps in the United State and Europe, Peace Corps volunteers beginning in the 1960s and the ubiquitous service learning trips that shape the identities of today’s youth. Structural critiques focused on traditional notions of political economy or those that diametrically oppose top-down and grassroots practices cannot sufficiently explain this persistent decentralized humanitarianism. Critiques of these types of practices often center on the problem of “parachuting” into unfamiliar and inappropriate contexts and volunteers’ failure to deliver on promised material or social gains for locals. These can be powerful correctives to the egoism of “do-gooders,” but they often miss the larger stories of the pushes and pulls that drive middle-class individuals to enact their social consciences in this manner. More productive insights come by way of analyses focused on the practice of the self, the production of identity and the everyday politics that take place between specific groups and individuals. These types of analyses, of which I consider my own, demonstrate surprising affinities between the religious and secular, across race and class and among individuals with seemingly opposite worldviews. As a starting point for re-imagining the role of the volunteer, the beneficiary and the scholar herself, a focus on humanitarian ethics reframes all three as participants in a performance across difference. The acknowledgement of this performance is the first step in understanding the meaning of oppositional and collaborative politics in practice.