Decolonizing Ethnographic ‘Responsibility’: Towards a Decolonized Praxis

This essay was originally presented at the 2016 University of Colorado Boulder Department of Anthropology Graduate Student Conference  titled “The Ethnographic Turn.”

A shorter version of this titled “Decolonizing ‘responsibility’ in Tibetan and Buddhist Studies: A Structurally Decolonizing Praxis” was presented at the American Academy of Religion, San Diego, CA. November 23rd to 26th 2019. On the panel “Decolonail/Anti-Racist Interventions in Tibetan Buddhist Studies,” organized by Natalie Avalos. A summary version of my talk was published by Waxing Moon Journal on 1st of October 2020.

An edited version of this titled “Decolonizing Ethnographic Responsibility: Towards a Decolonized Praxis” was presented on October 21 2020 on the panel “Heritage and Repatriation” organized by SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) University of London. Here is the video of the panel with Q&A at the end:



What does it mean to be a responsible scholar attuned to decolonization as a method? Responsible to whom, when, and why? I am struck by how simple yet complex this question is for me. Easy because I am a Native scholar doing work with my own community—I know to whom I am responsible, and my community’s path towards self-determination is closely tied to my own liberation. Thus, the kinds of work I produce impact my community and myself directly, so the question of who I am responsible to is not a hard one for me to answer.

However, working with the community with whom I am from does not guarantee I will not produce work that the Nepali scholar Bista describes as “an insecure and thoughtless mimicry of the West” (1987 9). In fact, in Demystifying Some Ethnographic Texts on the Himalayas, Po’Dar and Subba makes clear that Native scholars are not free from producing orientalist discourses. However, scholars who work with communities that they are from, I argue, are more mindful of this critique for they have familial and communal ties that can easily be threatened due to works that may be perceived as harmful to the collective. This also brings up questions of positionality for Native scholars. Native scholars are tied to their community, and so, are susceptible to such works of harm, which I argue, force them to be less blind to perspectives of privilege. Thus, I do not see myself as having a choice over having responsibility. Rather, familial and communal bonds demand that I serve my obligation as a member of this community to produce work that is healing. In this response, I seek to decenter the framing logics of anthropological ethics by asking: what happens when the question of responsibility becomes one of obligation; choice becomes necessity, and crisis exists as an everyday reality?

Episodic                                                    Structural (non-Episodic)

Colonial encounters                              (De)colonization

Resistance                                                Refusal

Outsiders                                                  Community member

Ethics                                                        Obligation

Allyship                                                    Marginality

As Mohawk anthropologist Dr. Audra Simpson it is important not to fall into the delegitimizing trap of justifying Native scholarship on the basis of identity politics and justice alone. This matters, but a deeper reason relates to the ways in which Simpson engaged the distinction between resistance and refusal with event and structure. This cuts to the heart of the question. Ethical anthropologists are encouraged to do the right thing through the logic of ethics for the very reason that they don’t have to. However, like refusal, obligation, necessity and everyday realities, are the non-episodic qualities that structure the daily lives of Indigenous peoples, researchers, or otherwise. By naming refusal, Simpson has not presented a new fashionable anthropological turn. While her conceptualization is novel and valuable, the reality of refusal according to Simpson, is something that Indigenous people have experienced throughout the history of colonization. If colonization was an event, then resistance would be enough. It’s not. As Patrick Wolf notes, colonization was and remains structural. Therefore, modes of decolonization must too be structural. If we truly want to decolonize, we must reimagine legacies of episodic conceptualization as structural, and move away from resisting colonial encounters by ethical outsiders, toward the refusal of colonial structures by obligated stake holders, for whom non-obligatory ethics loses all meaning.


For guidance, I turn to my attention to Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith—another Native scholar doing work with her own community and a leading theorist on decolonizing methods (1999). Smith problematizes Euro-Western approaches to research that she argues has historically served to essentialize communities and assist those in power in their project to further colonization—a system she terms “colonizing knowledges” (59). In order to avoid this, she proposes research that is decolonial in method. For research to be truly decolonial, it must, argues Smith, prioritize Indigenous voices, histories, epistemologies, and their struggle against settler colonialism (129). In other words, research that orients itself around Indigenous peoples and their thoughts and struggles first and foremost. Such an approach that Smith stresses must be collaborative, and can lead to “healing of the researched and a wider scope of representation for the voices of the dispossessed, disenfranchised colonized Other in the research process” (255). “The goal,” She writes, “is to make them visible and integrate them in the academic discourse and the global knowledge economy” (307). Thus, for me to produce responsible scholarship on the community from whom I’m from, my obligation requires me to produce decolonized work that centers them and their struggles and concerns. It requires Indigenous scholars such as myself, argues Smith, to be ethical, critical, respectful, reflexive, and most of all, humble, so that Native scholars may hear members of their community when they are speaking (1999:139).

In 2012, the number of Tibetans who chose to self-immolate in Tibet began to increase at an alarming rate. Although the first Tibetan to set himself afire to protest in Tibet took place in 2009, following the 2008 uprising, which was the largest recorded protest in Tibetan history across the three provinces of Tibet. The number of Tibetans self-immolating jumped at an increasing rate from one in 2009, to fourteen in 2011, to eighty-six in 2012. There were one or two self-immolations taking place almost every week during the winter of 2012.

If one understands the self-immolations as episodic, it takes away its deeper relationship with settler colonialism—which is not episodic. Tibetans across the world reacted emotionally and in unison to this act because this is the physical manifestation of their everyday life and history. Tibetans organized at all levels to amplify the voices of the self-immolators so that their protests were seen and heard inside and outside Tibet. During this time, scholars of Tibet and the Himalayas stepped forward to take scholarly responsibility to address the misrepresentation of self-immolations of Tibetans in the media.

On April 9, 2012 Carole McGranahan and Ralph Litzinger edited a series of essays on the self-immolations titled Self-Immolation as Protest in Tibet on Cultural Anthropology (McGranahan and Litzinger, 2012). Months later, Katia Buffetrille and Francoise Robin edited Tibet is Burning on Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines on December 14, 2012 (Buffetrille and Robin, 2012).

I consider these works to be decolonial because they tried to strengthen the voices of the self-immolators by giving their actions socio-economic, religious-political, and historical context—trying to, in Smiths words, “make them visible and integrate them in the academic discourse and the global knowledge economy.” Rather than take an objective stance, scholars came together to use learned knowledges from their subjects to engage larger conversations that contextualized individual self-immolators and their protest as the act took place. This was scholarship that drew on knowledges of the Indigenous pasts to make sense of their individual presents, especially during moments in which the baseline daily structural violence manifested in ways that was read internationally as episodic human tragedy. But where does my work as a Native scholar fit into all of this?

In Indigenous Feminism, Cheryl Suzack and Shari M. Huhndorf make the argument that for any work to be considered decolonial, such works need to first center settler colonialism (2010:16). As the number of self-immolations in Tibet began to slowly rise in 2011, I began addressing individual self-immolators by intentionally placing them within the discourse of Chinese settler colonialism on Lhakar Diaries—a blog I run with other Tibetans to serve as a platform for Tibetan thought by us for us. However, the alarming rise in numbers in 2012 put me in a constant state of anxiety—especially when I felt so far away from friends and family who were engaged in practices of commemoration and solidarity. I made every effort to bring up self-immolations as they took place in every space I was engaged. On April 11, 2012, I was invited by a friend to give a targeted talk on the self-immolations, as these acts were virtually unknown to my university. I felt obligated in the positive generative sense to amplify their calls to action. Following this, I wrote another post on Lhakar Diaries giving an outline of my talk for others interested in doing something similar for public awareness (Lokyitsang, 2012).

In all these posts and talks, I situated individual self-immolators against the backdrop of the Chinese settler colonial state. In Indigenous Feminism: The Project, Hilden and Lee argue that to decolonize, one needs to “reclaim, reread, and rearticulate” Indigenous peoples from the past and the present, whose voices, they argue, are always being misrepresented and/or erased (2010:74). I published the essay Their Burning Bodies Told Histories Never Forgotten on on December 18, 2013 (Lokyitsang, 2013) (which I recently discovered was heavily plagiarized by someone doing a dissertation on the subject at the University of Sussex.) The essay was my attempt to write against colonizing narratives on the self-immolations by the Chinese state, as well as to speak with rather than for the self-immolators. Aside from few scholars, most reports on the self-immolation in scholarship and media until then had mostly focused solely on just the act, and very little attention had been paid to whom the self-immolators were speaking, and the structures that they were speaking about. That article was my attempt to write about the self-immolators and the audiences they were speaking to. It was my attempt to “reclaim, rewrite, and rearticulate” self-immolators and their multiple audiences. This according to Hilden and Lee is how I am able to begin the process of “healing of the researched,” myself included.

The reason I go through this timeline is to demonstrate how my role as a Native scholar requires me to always address present circumstances of the Tibetan community at all times. The position of colonized Tibetan or refuged exiled Tibetan suggests a positioning of crisis that isn’t episodic, but an everyday structural affair. I consider the historical approach I have adopted over the course of my progression as a scholar to be a method to decolonize. It is a method that has helped me center the voices and subjectivities of Tibetans in the present using their memories of the past—a method many Indigenous scholars stress. It is a method that has helped me center the voices and subjectivities of Tibetans in the present using their memories of the past—a method many Indigenous scholars stress. It also allows me to engage Tibetan pasts in order to make sense of Tibetan presents, so that we may collectively engage in imagining Tibetan futures—an engagement that Indigenous scholars argue preoccupies itself with the project of healing (Dillion 2012). For my work to be truly decolonial, it must engage the concerns of my community at all times, because it engages the futures of not just myself, but my family and thus, my community. Decolonized works suggests pathways towards individual and communal healing. This is how I view my obligation as a Native scholar doing work with my own community.

As such, I invite researchers to consider a structurally decolonizing praxis. This would not only involve theories and methods generated by community members with whom you work, it would also employ the genealogy of works produced by Indigenous scholars over the last forty years. The contributions made by such scholars often remain inaccessible in our disciplines, yet they offer ways of approaching questions regarding ethics and responsibility that anthropology and other disciplines often consider important. Having engaged refusal, we might ask a larger disciplinary question beyond the level of the individual. What happens when scholarly ethics become disciplinary obligations embedded into the ethnographic process itself, to refuse the everyday structures of ever-present colonization?

Works Cited:

Bista, Dor Bahadur. 1987. Nepal school of sociology/anthropology.

Buffetrille, Katia and Robin, Francoise. 2012. Tibet is Burning. Self-immolation: Ritual or Political Protest? Special issue of Review d’etudes Tibétaines, 25, 1-212.

Dillon, G. L. (Ed.). 2012. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. University of Arizona Press.

Hilden, Patricia Penn and Leece M. Lee. 2010. Indigenous feminism: The project. Indigenous women and feminism: Politics, activism, culture, 56-78.

Huhndorf, Shari M. and Cheryl Suzack. (2010). Indigenous feminism: Theorizing the issues. Indigenous women and feminism: Politics, activism, culture, 1-17.

Lokyitsang, Dawa. 2013, December 18. “Their Burning Bodies Told Histories Never Forgotten.” Lhakar Diaries. Url:

Lokyitsang, Dawa. 2012, April 11. “How Do You Teach Self-Immolations in Tibet?” Lhakar Diaries. Url:

McGranahan, Carole, and Litzinger, Ralph. 2012. Self-Immolation as Protest in Tibet. Cultural Anthropology.

Po’dar, Preym K. and Tanka B. Subba. (1991). Demystifying Some Ethnographic Texts on the Himalayas. Social Scientist, 78-84.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Duke University Press.

Simpson, Audra. Workshop 1: Ethnographic Refusal, 12:35pm-2:05pm 9/30/2016, at 2016 University of Colorado Boulder Department of Anthropology.<;

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed books.

Suzack, Cheryl, Shari M. Huhndorf, Jeanne Perreault, and Jean Barman (Eds.). 2011. Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism, Culture. University of British Columbia Press.

Wolfe, Patrick. 2006. Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native. Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4), 387-409.