By Savina Magni
In 2005, Arizona State University Professor Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy published an article on The Urban Review in which he tried to address the complex relationship between the Indigenous Peoples and the United States federal government. More specifically, Professor Brayboy examines the American Indians' relationship with education through the use of what he calls the Tribal Critical Race Theory (TribalCrit).
Professor Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy coined the term ‘Tribalcrit’
TribalCrit is built on the Critical Race Theory (CRT) which is a cross-disciplinary movement of civil-rights scholars whose main goal is to uncover the contradictions between race and law in the United States whilst challenging the American liberal approach to racial justice. This theory was introduced in the mid-1970s by multiple academics including Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado. In the article, the author explains that similarly to the CRT, which suggests that racism is endemic in society, TribalCrit argues that colonization is endemic in society whilst also highlighting the role played by racism. In particular, Professor Brayboy emphasizes that the theory focuses on addressing the many issues the American Indian communities are facing today such as the lack of students graduating from universities, and the power struggles between federal, state, and tribal governments. The author also identifies and reports what he considered to be the nine tenets of the Tribal Critical Race theory.
Firstly, TribalCrit is built on the belief that colonization is endemic to society. He points out that the goal of the dominant society in the US is to “civilize” (or “change”) American Indians by transforming them into those who have more power.
The second tenet of this theory asserts that US policies towards Indigenous Peoples are rooted in white supremacy and imperialism. The author highlights how European Americans made a distinction between the concepts of habitation and ownership and how they justified the expulsion of Indigenous people from their land “for their own good”. The idea that removing Indigenous people from their land was benefiting them more than anyone else relies on two concepts: Manifest Destiny and Norman Yoke. The former suggests that it was in God’s plan to give the land to the new settlers, while the latter is an economic term coined by Adam Smith that claims that it is a more of an obligation to occupy and utilize “vacant” lands.
Third, TribalCrit argues that Indigenous people are rarely treated as both legal/political and racialized beings, although they are considered as such. Professor Brayboy explains that there are tribes and Indigenous Peoples who are only recognized at state level, although they were present before the constitution was created. Thus, their belonging to the nation should not be questioned.
The fourth tenet of this theory is built on the idea that American Indians should be granted tribal autonomy, self-determination, self-identification, and tribal sovereignty. Specifically, Indigenous Peoples should have the right to have control over their existing lands and natural resources, to define what happens with their autonomy and to refuse the guardian/ward relationship that is currently in place between them and the United States federal government.
Fifth, the Tribal Critical Race Theory questions the idea of culture and knowledge by offering alternative ways to perceive them through the tribal lens. For example, the author explains that knowledge can take at least three different forms: cultural knowledge, knowledge of survival, and academic knowledge. The former refers to understanding the tradition and what it means to be a member of a tribal nation; knowledge of survival is the process of adapting to changes in order to move forward as a tribe and individual; the latter describes a type of knowledge opposed to “book smarts”, they however do not need to be in conflict.
The sixth tenet of the theory is the realization that educational and governmental policies have historically tried to assimilate American Indians. Specifically, TribalCrit claims that to be successful as both academics and American Indians, individuals must protect their Indigenous identity, which might not be achievable if they assimilate into educational institutions. Hence why the theory is explicitly against assimilation in educational institutions.
Similarly, to the fifth component, the seventh indicates the importance of recognizing Indigenous costumes, traditions and visions for the future, whilst also emphasizing the weight of understanding the differences within individuals and between people and groups.
The eighth tenet contrasts the modern “scientifically based” view because it is built on the idea that there should not be a separation between theory and stories, since the latter act as a way to guide individuals towards the world and life.
Lastly, the final tenet of the Tribal Critical Race Theory argues that there is a need for an introduction to action or activism. Specifically, it must be praxis at its best by doing research and actively changing the situation and the context examined.
It should be clear now that the Tribal Critical Race Theory is a theory built on Critical Race Theory. It aims to expose the complex relationship between American Indians and the US government. It is constituted by nine pillars and each of them highlight the issues faced by the tribal communities whilst also trying to explain how to address them.
Brayboy, B.M.J. Toward a Tribal Critical Race Theory in Education. Urban Rev 37, 425–446 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11256-005-0018-y
Gilborn, D., Ladson-Billings, G. Critical Race Theory. (2019). http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/10.4135/9781526421036764633
Zurcher, A., (2021). Critical race theory: the concept dividing the US. [online] BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-57908808
Savina Magni is a current MSc student at the London School of Economics & Political Science studying Environmental Economics & Climate Change. Savina has a particular passion in learning about and caring for the environment. She holds a first-class undergraduate degree from Goldsmiths University in Economics. Savina is a Blog Writer for the JISJ Intersections team.