Indigenous Youth and the Changing Face of Settler Colonialism: A Conversation with Jaskiran Dhillon

Jaskiran Dhillon stands in the foreground of a blurry city scene with yellow taxicabs behind her

Colonial state intervention is nothing new to Indigenous youth in Treaty 6 Cree Territory, also known as Saskatoon, in the western Canadian province of Saskatchewan. the book cover, a drawing of rolling prairie hills with conical tents But state-sanctioned social programming has recently been rebranded as “participatory” and hailed as a step towards reconciliation. Yet this shift towards participatory and inclusionary policies may only result in a new form of settler colonialism—one that Indigenous youth are especially caught up in. Dr. Jaskiran Dhillon, in her new book Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention, turns her gaze to settler-colonial interventions in the lives of Indigenous youth to elucidate the ongoing violence, harm, and colonial racism under this “new” politics of participation.

I sat down with Dr. Dhillon on February 10th during the Center for Culture, History, and Environment’s 11th Annual Graduate Symposium, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she was the keynote speaker.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Sheamus Johnson: Could you give us a brief introduction to your book, Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention?

Jaskiran Dhillon: The book is centered on exploring state interventions in the lives of urban Indigenous youth. It’s set on the plains of central Canada, in the province where I grew up—Saskatchewan—which is Cree territory and the homelands of the Métis Nation. The book emerged from longstanding work I had been doing in advocacy and organizing for Indigenous youth in both Vancouver and Saskatoon. I was doing front-line program development for youth characterized as homeless, living on the street, or “at risk”—another label that is commonly used to mark the lived experience of these young people. Part of what I noticed when I was doing that work were the very colonial approaches to thinking about the development of social programming and the absence of the anticolonial critique or politicized critique around what was happening in the lives of youth living with extreme violence in the everyday.

The book aims to open a different line of inquiry into how we can think about the experiences of Indigenous youth and also to deeply question the kinds of state interventions and programs that are developed in order to, ostensibly, support them. And the urgency of this has never been more clear with the recent acquittals of Gerald Stanley and Raymond Cormier in the murders of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine, respectively.

a child wearing a colorful hat and white t-shirt with activist messages walks in a group of adults

Rally for murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, Saskatoon, SK, 2014, photo by Jaskiran Dhillon.

SJ: Prairie Rising centers on the shift in the Canadian government’s approach to First Nations and the politics of participation and intervention. What is this shift?

JD: Yes, in Canada you see the rise of the politics of inclusion and reconciliation politics, which is projected as a departure from governing as usual. But I would argue that this is a new kind of colonial statecraft where Indigenous peoples are invited to participate and become part of the decision-making authority around the things that impact their lives. And so this is not a project about land reclamation and indigenous sovereignty per se, it is about a view of Indigenous self-determination that is mediated by the state.

SJ: What might different audiences take from Prairie Rising?

JD: I was really hoping that the very political orientation to the work that I demonstrate in my book would really encourage other anthropologists to think about the political implications of their research and writing. And I think in Anthropology departments across the board you will still find work that is positioned as disconnected from political mobilizing and organizing efforts. And so for me it was an attempt to speak to anthropologists but also other social scientists about the work of doing political organizing alongside scholarship. If we want to be politically responsible and accountable, they have to work in tandem. We are accountable to the communities that we work alongside. And so of course, this book was meant to be helpful and supportive of a broader Indigenous movement for sovereignty.

SJ: Can you speak specifically to some of the challenges that remain for this kind of scholarship?

JD: One of the most important pieces of insight that I learned from doing this work is that we need much more scholarship and organizing work that looks specifically at the lives of Indigenous young people. And that means that they need to tell their stories. And maybe I’m not the best researcher to do that; there may be an Indigenous scholar or community organizer who is in a better position to do this part of the work, to actually look at developing leadership strategies for Indigenous youth. My intention with this book was to shine a light on the settler-colonial state and the continued violence it enacts with respect to the lives of Indigenous youth and their communities. There are so many examples of Indigenous young people leading resistance movements: Idle No More in Canada, resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock in the United States are both very clear examples of this.

Featured Image: Jaskiran Dhillon, New York City 2016. Photo by Livia Santos.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Jaskiran Dhillon is an Assistant Professor of Global Studies and Anthropology at the New School, and the author of Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention (University of Toronto Press, 2017). Dhillon is affiliated with the New York City Stands With Standing Rock Collective and in 2016 participated in a Teach-In for Standing Rock at the New School. She is currently researching the vital role of Indigenous activism in environmental justice movements and, more broadly, aims to put her scholarship, organizing, and teaching to work in the service of political movements advancing decolonization, justice, and freedom. Website. Contact.

Sheamus Johnson is a graduate student at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Anthropology Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His current research is in collaboration with the 1854 Treaty Authority to inventory climate resilient stands of sugar maple in the 1854 Ceded Territory. His research interests are environmental anthropology, political ecology, and treaty rights. Twitter. Contact. 

12 Responses

  1. Mel Jenkins says:

    Always beware the trap of presentism.

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