Profiles | 25 May 2023

Alumna Profile: Claire Urbanski


Dr. Claire Urbanski is a graduate of the Feminist Studies Department, with Designated Emphases in Critical Race and Ethnic Studies and Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz (’22). Dr. Urbanski served as a 2016-2017 Public Fellow with the Arizona State Museum; a 2016-2017 THI Summer Research Fellow; and a 2018-2019 THI Summer Dissertation Fellow. She is currently serving as a 2022–2024 Postdoctoral Fellow at The Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. In May, we discussed Dr. Urbanski’s evolving research work, the relationship between scholarship and activism, and the importance of looking to Indigenous knowledge to imagine and construct decolonial futures.

Hi Claire! Thanks for chatting with us about completing your PhD, your ongoing research, and your current position. To begin, could you give us a general synopsis of your dissertation, “Spiritual Conquest: Desecration and Colonial Capitalist Extraction on Stolen and Sacred Lands”?

My dissertation project examines colonial spiritual violence and how the desecration of Indigenous sacred sites and burial grounds are imperative to the consolidation and reproduction of United States colonial capitalist empire. I use archival research, oral histories, participant observation, and interviews to track these colonial projects of Indigenous burial theft, human remains collecting, and sacred site desecration as taken up across colonial institutions of militarism, scientific knowledge production, and industrial development from the nineteenth century to the present day. By demonstrating each institution’s use of such projects to expand colonial claims, I reveal how the U.S. accumulates power both materially (e.g. land) and immaterially (e.g. afterlife and futurity) through distinct forms of spiritual violence.

In each of my chapters, I analyze a specific scene of U.S. colonial spiritual violence as relationally situated within broader economies of racialized and gendered dispossession. By doing so, I aim to show how desecration is a key technology of dispossession and colonial capitalist production. By tracking the consistent use and essential function of such desecration throughout the expansion of U.S. empire and capitalist development, what I find is that colonial capitalist systems have always hinged upon extractive relations with the Indigenous body in life and death. In turn, I look to the ways that Indigenous women, queer, trans and Two Spirit-led movements to protect the Sacred and to rematriate Indigenous lands cultivate possibilities for otherwise ways of life beyond the possessive extractive logics of colonial capitalism. 

Your work argues that the critical deployment of “spiritual violence” functions as an ongoing mode of U.S. conquest, colonization, and Indigenous dispossession. Can you explain what you mean by “spiritual dispossession” and how this relates to the theft and continual dispossession of land?

In my work, one of the ways in which I conceptualize ‘the spiritual’ is as a way to broadly refer to the ways of life, cosmologies, ontologies, and relational complexities that have been systematically banished, expelled, submerged, and/or criminalized throughout the implementation and development of colonization and capitalism. For example, the banishment of all Indigenous knowledges and practices that contradicted Christian doctrine was foundational to the spread of conquest and colonization across the (so-called) Americas.

Protest sign. Photo by Claire Urbanski.

Also essential to settler colonialism is access to Indigenous lands, as without this, the settler state cannot exist. Settler states (like the U.S.) must continuously enforce and maintain Indigenous dispossession in order to maintain access (and claims to) Indigenous lands as a condition of its possibility. In Western society, land is related to in terms of extraction and possession. Land is something to be owned and the value of land lies in how much it can be made to produce. These logics inform modern colonial property systems. As property, land is rendered into an abstract, fungible commodity that can be bought and sold.

For Indigenous worldviews, as scholars like Glen Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene) have explained, Indigenous land is not only central, but is an actual part of the Indigenous peoples who belong to and with it. This gestures to the profound devastation that is implicated in the desecration and destruction of Indigenous sacred lands and places, for such violence devastates entire worlds, ways of being, and modes of life that are formed as part of a particular place. This is what my research looks at – how desecration is an essential tool or technique of dispossession. Through this conceptualization, it comes as no surprise then that Indigenous ‘spiritual’ practices and ways of relating to and with land remain heavily criminalized in the United States. And despite the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the rights of property and extractive capital always take precedence over Indigenous religious rights.

Your project also focuses on lineages of Indigenous feminist spiritual resistance. Why, for you, is it so important to trace and project these modes of persistence?

Critical to colonization and the dispossession of Indigenous lands in the United States and across the Americas has been the implementation of colonial heteropatriarchal sex and gender systems. Because colonization and the dispossession of Indigenous lands are so bound up in the enforcement and implementation of colonial heteropatriarchal sex and gender systems, gender violence is inextricable from our (Western) ways of relating to land. This gender violence has especially entailed the unrelenting deployment of violence against the bodies of Indigenous women, girls, queer, trans, and Two-Spirit peoples.

Indigenous feminist spiritual resistance rejects and refuses the possessive extractive logics of colonial capitalism and cultivates practices and possibilities of otherwise ways of life. And this is why I think Indigenous women and Two-Spirit-led movements for the return – or rematriation – of land are so essential to all collective liberation. To return Indigenous lands to Indigenous stewardship is not simply the material transfer of property from one set of hands to another, but rather is about the restoration and/or regeneration of specific ways of life, worldviews, and the particular relationships that form in relation to and with a place.

This is what I understand to be expressed in the term ‘rematriation,’ as it is used by the Sogorea Te Land Trust (STLT), an urban Indigenous women-led land trust based in Oakland.

The return of Indigenous lands to Indigenous stewardship is about restoring sacred relationships and the very possibility for otherwise ways of life beyond colonial capitalism.

As the STLT defines it, ‘rematriation’ is “to restore a people to their rightful place in sacred relationship with their ancestral land. [It is] Indigenous women-led work to restore sacred relationships between Indigenous people and our ancestral land, honoring our matrilineal societies, and in opposition of patriarchal violence and dynamics.” In other words, the return of Indigenous lands to Indigenous stewardship is about restoring sacred relationships and the very possibility for otherwise ways of life beyond colonial capitalism.

The restoration of these sacred relationships is a gradual and constant process – it is the restoration of ways of being and of living in the world. I want to emphasize that rematriation is not about returning; it does not seek to ‘return’ to a previous, pre-colonial time. Instead, I understand rematriation to exceed time. As Lisjan Ohlone tribal chair Corrina Gould has stated, a big part of rematriation work is to “tell the stories” and “to remember ourselves outside of these heteropatriarchal narratives that have been told of us.” In this way, rematriation work, as Tongan scholar (and new CRES professor!) Fuifuilupe Niumeitolu has described, has the ability to propose and show to us new alternatives to settler colonial violence. In this way, rematriation work is healing for everyone. 

What does or could a decolonial future look like for you and for the communities you work with?

This is a huge question that I can’t even begin to answer within the space we have here. But, I can say that I have no idea what a decolonial future looks like, as it is impossible for me to know or to be able to comprehend what full decolonization would look like from my standpoint as a settler oriented within a Western colonial capitalist world. But I think what such a future looks like begins to unfold and is revealed the more that we work to create it.

While what a decolonial future looks like is not fully knowable to us now, we do know what needs to change to get there. And this requires transforming our ways of relating to and with land, with each other, and with all beings. It requires that we stop relating to land and with each other based on logics of possession, extraction, and individualism and move towards relations based in our mutual interdependence and collective care.

Also, thanks to the work and wisdom of so many scholars, activists, and friends, I understand that the world-making projects of decolonization and abolition are bound up together. There’s a passage that comes to mind from Rehearsals for Living that is relevant to both this and the previous question, where Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes (in conversation with Robyn Maynard):

“Imperialism and ongoing colonialism have been ending worlds for as long as they have been in existence, and Indigenous and Black peoples have been building worlds and then rebuilding worlds for as long as we have been in existence. Relentlessly building worlds through unspeakable violence and loss. Building worlds and living in them anyway. […] Our histories, presences and futures are different and intertwined with one another. Our world-making projects of abolition and decolonization are enmeshed. We are globally positioned as the first to die when crises hit, and their solutions always preserve the systems that produce these conditions. Our communities are already post-apocalyptic experts and can best imagine worlds beyond our current realities, but in order to imagine, some of us have to first survive.”

So, in other words, Black and Indigenous life, land, and liberation are what decolonial and abolitionist futures look like.

You are serving now as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University for 2022-2024. How has your research project evolved since you graduated? What are some of the questions driving your writing right now?

Something I was deeply aware of as I was finishing my dissertation was the need to think about the colonial desecration of Indigenous burial grounds and theft of human remains as relationally entangled with the colonial desecration of African American burial grounds and theft of human remains by the same colonial institutions throughout U.S. history. As I conducted my dissertation research, it only became more and more clear that these colonial projects – while distinct and different from one another, are mutually constituted.

It feels very apparent to me that the histories of Indigenous sacred site desecration are bound up with the continual displacement and dispossession of Black life in the Bay Area.   

For example, in a chapter I’m revising right now, I’m trying to think the dispossession of Indigenous lands in Oakland in relation to the dispossession of Black land and Black space in Oakland. It feels very apparent to me that the histories of Indigenous sacred site desecration are bound up with the continual displacement and dispossession of Black life in the Bay Area.   

I’m also thinking a lot more about disability in my work. I became disabled in late 2019 with chronic illness, just before COVID-19 hit, and the experience of being sick and in total isolation for two years gave me new understandings of the relationships between disability justice and Indigenous land defense/return and how they together open up more expansive possibilities for how we think about care and accessibility. 

You have years of experience working as an activist and community organizer for the protection and return of Indigenous sacred sites in the San Francisco Bay Area (the Ohlone lands). Can you talk about how this community work intersects with your academic labor and your pedagogical values?

My scholarship and teaching practice are deeply grounded in and informed by this community activist-organizing work. This work is what led me to teaching, as what I seek to impart to my students is a strong understanding of how colonial violence continues to shape the (hegemonic) world while finding inspiration and possibility in what so many others have envisioned, created, and are building towards collectively liberatory futures.

My academic research is premised in the specific forms of colonial violence that pervade the occupied Lisjan Ohlone homelands (the San Francisco East Bay Area) where I have lived for the past decade and is grounded in my ongoing participation in Lisjan Ohlone-led movements to protect and return Ohlone sacred sites. And that is where my commitments and intentions with my work lie. 

What is the space on UCSC’s campus that you miss the most and why?

I miss the learning and organizing spaces of the Humanities 1 building and the Feminist Studies and CRES departments, where I spent a lot of time in the company of so many brilliant scholars doing important, relevant, interdisciplinary, feminist, and abolitionist work. I miss how relatively easy it was to find camaraderie and collaboration with the other doctoral students in its hallways.

I also miss the redwood trees and that – compared to other university campuses- there is some respect shown for the trees and non-human forms of life that live there. Stanford is so austere and militaristic in its design, and it feels like a fortress of colonial empire.

Banner Image: Photo showing excavation of the Shellmound in 1926. Image from the Oakland History Room.