Sovereignty in Settler Colonial Times

This article, “Sovereignty in Settler Colonial Times: Kinship and Education in the Tibetan Exile Community,” was originally published on the American Ethnologist website. American Ethnologist is a quarterly journal concerned with ethnology. I am making it available here in order to archive it for those following my work. If you choose to cite this work, please do so as follows:

Lokyitsang, Dawa. 2022. “Sovereignty in Settler Colonial Times: Kinship and Education in the Tibetan Exile Community” American Ethnologist website, 03 March 2022,

When the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, along with his administration and more than 80,000 Tibetans, fled to Nepal and India following China’s military retaliations against the Tibetan uprisings of 1959, they thought exile would be temporary. Instead, as China’s military invasion transitioned into a colonial occupation, exile became a long-term state of affairs. Under such bleak circumstances, Tibetans reconfigured sovereignty in the form of sovereignty-in-exile, at a distance from the colonial developments inside Tibet. Central to this project was the work of kinship—both the maintenance of well-established forms and the activation of new ones. Prior to exile, Tibetan kinship alliances had tended to function along biological/affinal (clan) and regional (hometown) lines. As I show in this historical and ethnographic essay, the conditions of exile also worked to configure new kinship ties along national lines—communities in exile became family to each other, and in turn, the nation itself was imagined as family.

In exile, schools became key sites in which these novel forms of kinship and belonging were cultivated. In 1960, the Dalai Lama’s administration opened nurseries for children in exile that later became boarding schools (Dalai Lama 1991). Students from this school eventually became adults who sustained the next phase of exile for Tibetans escaping the policies of the Cultural Revolution that were imposed upon Tibet. Today, there are over 70 Tibetan refugee schools in Nepal and India that have graduated over 25,000 students. These educational institutions, which were developed, run, and attended by Tibetans, both sustained and fostered new forms of solidarity and citizenship that in turn bolstered the project of sovereignty-in-exile.


Tibetan leadership provided a home for orphaned children and pedagogically encouraged new kinship relations in the space of educational institutions. Both a personal narrative and a shared account of the second generation of students’ experiences, Tapsang’s story reveals in part how Tibetan governmental institutions in exile operationalized cultural notions of kinship based on a shared history of Tibet to produce not only institutions, but also subjects who began to imagine each other, greater Tibet, and the government as kin, thus producing Tibetan sovereignty. What stories such as Tapsang’s show is the hope of renewal and the force of community against colonial developments in people’s lives and in the decisions they make, including escaping to exile. Kinship and education in the Tibetan exile experience combine to activate claims for sovereignty while re/creating a national family in exile and inside Tibet. As such, this case highlights indigenous ingenuity in social organization during times of ongoing colonialisms (Barker ed. 2005). In so doing, it demonstrates an important framework of kinship and governance as an agentive avenue for refusing settler colonialism (Simpson 2014) and initiating indigenous continuity and futurity.

Read the rest on the American Ethnologist website…

Section tittles in this essay is as follows:

  • A Brief History of a Nursery that Became the Tibetan Children’s Village
  • School as Family, Family as Nation
  • Refugees, Sovereignty, and Settler Colonialism