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.
How do Tibetans themselves conceptualize being Tibetan? Here, I explore this question through an ethnographic illustration of recent public discussions between Tibetans online, and the kinds of reactions these exchanges provoke. Their discussions were often about purity—what makes someone a pure Tibetan? Purity was needed, argued many, to preserve the Tibetan identity. For Tibetans inside and outside Tibet, preservation was a project that Tibetans collectively began after the Chinese invasion. Many saw purity as necessary to promote the project of cultural and identity preservation in colonized Tibet and exile-diaspora. Purity offered possibilities for survival and continuity of the culture. But what does this purity look like?
“Are Tibetans Indigenous? It depends who you ask. While Tibetans exposed to Indigenous sovereignty movements such as Idle No More and NoDAPL identify with indigeneity currently, the term was officially rejected decades earlier by the Tibetan apparatus in diaspora. Drawing on recent scholarship by Indigenous scholars, indigeneity as a term was a colonial construct. It was through this racial construction that the settler state proliferated the domination of Indigenous lands and bodies. However, many Indigenous organizers argue that the recent use of the term in mobilizing political solidarity across the globe against imperial-setter colonial-capitalist-governmentality has made the word too essential to abandon all together. Instead, Indigenous scholars have proposed ways of rethinking indigeneity that is decolonial. My paper draws on this scholarship to examine why Tibetans refused to identify as indigenous before yet claim it now. Using an historical approach, I examine the kinds of political stakes that were at risk in claiming the terminology earlier versus now. And why current redefinition of the word appeals to a younger generation of Tibetans growing up exposed to Indigenous movements in North America.”
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