Who are Tibetans? How have they been framed as objects for study across time? For earlier Western academics and the audiences who read their work, Tibetans were a people largely defined by religious beliefs and institutions. In this presentation, I argue that this emphasis in early Tibetan Studies set a precedent for sidelining Tibetan sovereignty as a central concern in both scholarship and in real world politics, a trend which continues to impact the field and Tibetan lives today. While researchers were interested in understanding the structural authority and functions of the sovereign, their Orientalizing renderings often sidelined analysis of Tibet’s geopolitical history and developments in central Asia as an empire and nation. This deprioritizing necessarily ignores the rich body of Indigenous history transmitted through literary production and oral traditions produced by Tibetans for Tibetan audiences that dates back centuries. A chronological examination of scholarly productions on Tibet undertaken predominantly by Western scholars reveals the making of Tibetan Studies as a Western academic subject based on ideas and interpretations of Tibetans by Westerners. Similarly, modern Chinese scholarship on Tibet has been heavily influenced by Orientalist Western traditions. Both demonstrate the importance of acknowledging histories of representation.
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.”