Decolonizing Ethnographic ‘Responsibility’: Towards a Decolonized Praxis

This past weekend I presented the following paper at the 2016 University of Colorado Boulder Department of Anthropology Graduate Student Conference  titled “The Ethnographic Turn.”


As I ponder over the question, “What does it mean to be a responsible scholar? Responsible to whom, when, and why?” I am struck by how easy and difficult this question is for me to answer. 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’m from does not guarantee I will not produce works that Dor Bahadur Bista describes as “an insecure and thoughtless mimicry of the West” (1987:9). In fact, Preym K. Po’Dar and Tanka B. Subba make it clear in Demystifying Some Ethnographic Texts on the Himalayas that Native scholars are not free from producing orientalist discourses (1991). 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 intersectional subjectivities for Native scholars that are tied to their community that make them also susceptible to such works of harm which 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 Dr. Audra Simpson pointed out yesterday, it’s 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 way in which Simpson engaged the distinction between resistance and refusal, which she argues, has to do with distinction between event/episode and structure. This cuts to the heart of the question. Anthropologists are encouraged to do the right thing through the logic of ethics, but this presumes we all need encouragement to do this; some of us don’t; we are already doing it. However, like refusal, obligation, necessity, and every day realities, Simpson argues, 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 (Simpson 2014). While her conceptualization is novel and valuable, the reality of refusal, she argues, is something that Indigenous peoples have experienced throughout the history of colonization. If colonization was an event, then as Simpson points out, resistance would be enough. It’s not (Simpson, Workshop 1: Ethnographic refusal 9/30/2016). As Patrick Wolf notes, colonization was and remains structural (1999). Therefore, modes of decolonization must too be structural. If we truly want to decolonize, we must reimagine legacies of episodic conceptualization as structural—moving away from the 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, a groundbreaking book by Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith—another Indigenous 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 considered truly decolonial, it must, argues Smith, prioritize Indigenous voices, histories, epistemologies, and their struggles 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, argues Smith, 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,” writes Smith, “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 they may hear members of their community when they are speaking (1999:139).

In 2012, the number of Tibetans who chose to self-immolation 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 largest uprising ever recorded across the three provinces of Tibet, the number of Tibetans self-immolating jumped at an alarming 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 self-immolation as episodic, it takes away its deeper relationship with settler colonialism—which is not episodic. Tibetans across the world had been reacting emotionally in unison to this act because this is the physical manifestation of their every day 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 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 this?

In Cheryl Suzack and Shari M. Huhndorf’s Indigenous Feminism: Theorizing the Issue, authors make the argument that for any work to be considered decolonized, such works need to first center settler colonialism (2010:16). As the number of self-immolation in Tibet began to slowly rise in 2011, I began addressing individual self-immolators by intentionally placing them within the discourse of Chinese settler colonial state on Lhakar Diaries, a blog I run with other Tibetans to serve as a platform for Tibetan thought by us for us (Lokyitsang, 2011). However, the alarming rise in numbers in 2012 put me in a constant state of anxiety—especially when I felt so far away from friend 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 in. On April 11, 2012, I was invited by a friend to give a special 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 the talk, I wrote another post on Lhakar Diaries giving an outline of the talk I had given for others interested in doing similar talks 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 (which I recently discovered was heavily plagiarized by someone doing a dissertation on the subject at the University of Sussex) on on December 18, 2013 (Lokyitsang, 2013). 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, which include McGranahan, most reports on the self-immolation in scholarship and media up until then had mostly concerned itself with 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. In this way, I was 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, refuged, or 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 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 Grace Dillon (2012) argue preoccupies itself with the project of healing. For my work to be truly decolonizing, 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.

In considering yesterday’s discussion of critiques against the dehumanizing Ontological turn; 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 often considers important. Having spent the weekend engaging refusal, we might ask a larger disciplinary question beyond the level of the individual; what happens when anthropological 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.

McGranahan, Carole. 2013, December 16. Professor Carole McGranahan on Tibet . <;

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. <;

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.