As the horrors of residential schools and the desecration of the remains of Black children are exposed, Jeremiah Chin, Bryan Brayboy, and Sabina Vaught explain why tribal critical race theory (TribalCrit) needs to inform scholarship and research in academia.
In the climate-change devastated world of Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, a peculiar phenomenon plagues colonial peoples: they have lost the ability to dream. In keeping with their conventions, they scientifically determine that Indigenous peoples carry the capacity for dreaming in the marrow of their bones. So, the dreamless kidnap Indigenous people and extract their marrow for desperate consumption.
As with any extractive genocidal project, the dreamless need more and more. “Soon,” says Dimaline’s character Miig, “they needed too many bodies, and they turned to history to show them how to best keep us warehoused, how to best position the culling. That’s when the new residential schools started growing up from the dirt like poisonous brick mushrooms. We go to the schools and they leach the dreams from where our ancestors hid them, in the honeycombs of slushy marrow buried in our bones.” (pp. 89-90). At the heart of this project is the structured hunting of Indigenous people, undertaken by “recruiters” anchored in schools.
Dimaline’s prescient repurposing of residential schools is mournfully timely for the current exhumation of the bones of children across North American boarding school sites. It is also timely for understanding the broad, deep link between schools, dreams, bones, and colonial impulses. North American schooling projects – which pivot toward extracting not knowing, exploiting not learning, killing not dreaming – erupt occasionally into counterinsurgent crises.
The school resurfaces over and over as a site for states and state-citizens to work out the reformulation of a colonial racial order threatened by the very destructions it put into motion: disease, climate devastation, economic collapse, supremacist violences. So, in late April 2021, it was revealed that American universities had been keeping the bones of Black children killed by the state when it bombed their home; children whose immediate families and communities are still living and grieving. Moreover, the bones were being used in an online course, and a screengrab from the course – suddenly emblazoned across personal, independent, and corporate media outlets – revealed (in the marketised world of open-access course platforms, parading the ethos of academic liberalism) an anthropologist standing smiling, holding a femur(?) in her blue-gloved hand, explaining the discipline to another woman. Black children’s remains serve as pedagogical implements in the university. Like the marrow in Dimaline’s novel, used to advance the colonial “dreams” of others. False dreams of controlling what is known and how and by whom, and burying all threats to those dreams.
Black children’s remains serve as pedagogical implements in the university.
In keeping with widespread discursive efforts to make this discovery of bones an event not a practice, an aberration not a condition, Democracy Now! referred to the revelations as “shocking” and “explosive.” Yet, behind the women in the still shot appears the Morton Cranial Collection.
The collecting of bones is not a shocking, exceptional, singular event, but rather a foundational non-event that shaped and shapes disciplines, institutions, and ideologies. As Derrick Bell and others so carefully detailed, racism and white supremacy are not exceptions to American law and society, rather they are elemental. Colleges and universities are, in part, an active colonial morgue. The Morton Cranial Collection is but one tangible illustration of this.
But a particular outrage continued to seep out of the news cycle. Though many have weighed in thoughtfully on the recent cascade of state bans, Kimberle Crenshaw, whose 1988 law review Race, Reform, and Retrenchment helped catalyse critical race theory (CRT), explained so clearly recently, “The basic point of that article was that wherever there is race reform, there’s inevitably retrenchment, and sometimes the retrenchment can be more powerful than the reform itself. And some of what we are experiencing right now is exactly that.” The original CRT scholars understood the relationship between law and ideologies of domination: put simply, that law is not handed down from a sovereign power to its citizenry, but rather that it is a product of the always-negotiated, very uneven relationships among a dominant (in this case colonial, supremacist) citizenry, the nation state, and non-dominant peoples. And, as Joy James and Audra Simpson remind us, allied citizenries will do the violent bidding of the state. As the state bans on CRT flourished in their fatuous, mean opportunism, children’s bones were exhumed from the grounds of first one residential school and then another and another. Hundreds of children. Soon to be thousands. And while their exhumation provides to the state and its allied citizenries tangible evidence against and about North American schooling projects, it is a brutal, ongoing disruption of what communities and families already know when their children are killed. And, what communities and families already know about child-killing as constitutive of these schooling projects as they live without their children, their children’s children, and the web of generations meant to dream itself into being.
Tribal critical race theory (TribalCrit) ... argues that colonisation is endemic and ubiquitous - an original and ongoing ingredient in the (re)creation of nation states.
Horror is not known by its spectacle but rather by its mundanity. Its regularity. Its relentlessness. The spectacle manufactured by its irregular (and usually accidental) public eruption and disruption is just the fleeting glimpse of its monstrosity. And yet that eruption is a dialectic. How does one see the non-event of colonial schooling? Its force and pull? Its fundamental interdiction on sovereignty and self-determination? How does one see the epistemologies of the morgue through the cloying democratic sentimentalities of schooling?
The bones of children buried in unmarked graves and cataloged in museums are rooted in a particular type of violence and terror facilitated by legal policies and institutions that allowed their deaths to be unknown to colonial records and for effective conquest. Their colonial erasures — and accidental exposure — are embedded in the institutions and processes of nation-states like the United States and Canada. Tribal critical race theory (TribalCrit), an intellectual cousin of CRT, argues that colonisation is endemic and ubiquitous – an original and ongoing ingredient in the (re)creation of nation states. TribalCrit surfaces the dynamic structures of colonialism, inviting analytic specificity to the violence and repugnancy of the seemingly mundane at the intersections of conquest and supremacy, of the political and the racial.”
Simultaneously uncovering and dismantling false histories, TribalCrit, CRT, and other critical frameworks, exhume the histories, stories, and practices colonial schooling attempts to kill and bury with children’s bodies, with children’s knowledge, with dreams. Without a critical lens, schools entomb all our histories, and the buried bodies of dreamers remain only as objects of perfidious study, possessions of carceral academic institutions, and bedrocks of ongoing colonial governance. Children represent a family’s and community’s dreams. If a child’s femur – taken in a hostile, but predictable, normalised act of the colonial state – is used as a teaching prop without anyone raising a concern, schooling and its disciplines and discipline are grounded in killing. If the Morton Cranial Collection is the backdrop to knowledge, then what schools know is how to conquer.
TribalCrit notes that Indigenous stories and wisdoms will serve as a way forward for scholarly work, for knowledge work: to open up dreams, rather than limit, hinder, or murder them
TribalCrit invites us back to relationships that are at the heart of freedom knowledge, insisting that place, people, and self-determination frame how we listen and know one another. Alongside notions such as resurgence, TribalCrit notes that Indigenous stories and wisdoms will serve as a way forward for scholarly work, for knowledge work: to open up dreams, rather than limit, hinder, or murder them. There is freedom rooted in knowing, in acknowledging, in the painful work of creating the conditions for freedom.
Will schools be a place to dream or a place that steals and buries dreams and dreamers? A place of freedom or a morgue? Will disciplines feast on the dead or learn from and nourish self-determination? Anticolonial, decolonial movements mean not simply schools without bones, but instead schools of dreams and dreamers.
“Dreams and visions provide glimpses of decolonized spaces and transformed realities that we have collectively yet to imagine.” (L. Simpson, p. 35, Dancing on our turtle’s back)
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.
Main image: Manny Becerra on Unsplash