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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Native American Embodiment in Educational and Carceral Contexts: Fixing, Eclipsing, and Liberating

  • Author(s): Blu Wakpa, Tria
  • Advisor(s): Biolsi, Thomas
  • et al.
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Today Native American youth are overrepresented in detention centers and receive some of the harshest treatment from state and federal carceral institutions. To intervene in this crisis, U.S. and tribal governments have partnered to create tribal juvenile halls, located on Indian reservations, which seek to educate and rehabilitate Native youth through culturally relevant curricula. Little has been written about tribal juvenile halls, their relationship to 19th and 20th century boarding schools designed to assimilate Native youth, and the experiences of Native peoples in these spaces.

Scholars have also yet to address the link between education and incarceration historically and contemporarily in the Native context. I investigate Native youth’s experiences with educational and embodied programming at two institutions located on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota: St. Francis Mission School, a former on-reservation boarding school (1886-1972), and Wanbli Wiconi Tipi (Eagle Life Home), the tribal juvenile detention center founded in 2005. Examining Native American basketball, dance, and theater reveals that St. Francis officials largely omitted ideas about “Indianness” except for in athletics and the arts. I center my research on the Rosebud Reservation because U.S. policies regarding education and incarceration have frequently targeted the Sicangu Lakota.

Drawing on close readings of newspaper articles, photographs, performances, short films, and in-depth interviews with educators, students, and incarcerated youth, I demonstrate how the mission school and the detention center have articulated almost identical goals but with very different cultural bases: to produce loyal, productive citizens of high character through educational and embodied programming. I uncover how educators and students at St. Francis created and contested ideas about the assimilative processes intended to fix and eclipse Lakota bodies. In the context of human rights violations related to various methods of confinement, Wanbli Wiconi Tipi employees adopt what I describe as decolonial tactics within the restrictions imposed by the current system to counter and refute colonial logics of Native dehumanization and displacement and assert Native peoples and nations’ interests. I offer the term carceral liberation to describe the U.S. government’s ongoing limitations on tribal sovereignty, Native peoples’ negotiation of these restrictions, and the paradoxical opportunities that Native peoples may experience while incarcerated. My interviews with Lakota and other Native youth held in detention at Wanbli Wiconi Tipi illuminate that settler colonialism has shifted their perceptions of force and oppression, so that they exert their own fixing of the facility’s mission.

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This item is under embargo until November 7, 2021.