Theses Doctoral

Sovereign Bodies: Urban Indigenous Health and the Politics of Self-determination in Seattle and Sydney, 1950-1980

John, Maria Katherine

This dissertation compares and connects the parallel histories of two indigenous community-controlled health services, the Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB) and The Aboriginal Medical Service (AMS) of Sydney. These were among the first clinics of their kind to be established and run by and for urban indigenous communities in the U.S. and Australia. Formed in the 1970s within months of each other, I bring their seemingly disconnected histories together to illuminate a larger transnational history about the political ramifications of twentieth-century postwar urbanization (and the associated growth of an indigenous diaspora) on native people’s concepts and practices of political sovereignty. By considering how these clinics provided a key forum for new urban pan-indigenous forms of political and cultural identity—and claims to indigenous rights—to be expressed and recognized, my work makes two significant contributions. First, it reveals the importance of health as an arena of indigenous political action in the twentieth century. Second, it underscores that indigenous sovereignty, as a political project, must be understood as both adaptive and responsive to change.
Drawing on archival research and oral histories conducted over two years across Australia and the United States—including interviews with activists and health workers who were on the front lines of indigenous politics in the 1950s-1970s—I explain why in their pursuit of self-determination, urban pan-indigenous communities steadily turned away from a purely western conception of sovereignty as jurisdiction over land. The health struggles of urban indigenous peoples since the Second World War are a pointed demonstration of how the loss of even limited territorial sovereignty (that is, relocation from reserves and reservations) led to damaging structural invisibility, discrimination, and neglect within the social welfare system. Thus, this dissertation shows how and why the communities in Seattle and Sydney were driven to pursue other forms of practiced, or what I call “deterritorialized”, sovereignty centering on their rights to self-governance through the creation and transformation of various social organizations (in this case health clinics) in line with distinctive cultural perspectives.
This is the first book-length study to take healthcare reform seriously as an arena in which indigenous political actors worked to redefine the reach and the meaning of indigenous sovereignty for communities without recourse to land or nationhood in the assertion of their sovereign rights. Moreover, by bringing a comparative view to this historical inquiry, my work reminds us that trans-Pacific networks of ideas and people formed a shared context for these peoples and histories. I argue that indigenous health activists in the U.S. and Australia became active at precisely the same moment, because each saw their struggle for recognition and self-determination as part of a global challenge to racism during the Civil Rights era. Moreover, these indigenous community-controlled clinics should be recognized as part of broader changes taking place in grassroots health advocacy at the time, as reflected in the contemporaneous community and women’s health movements, and the movement to form People’s Free Clinics by the Black Panthers.
In its consideration of the unique problems of recognition faced by urban pan-indigenous communities, “Sovereign Bodies” also contributes towards an understanding of processes of ‘place-making’ in a period of great mobility following the Second World War. This dissertation argues that the indigenous urban health clinics very quickly came to represent the social production of a new kind of political space: not a tribal homeland or even a mosaic of different homelands, but a generic native space in the city that gave physical form to new ideas of a non-territorial, or ‘deterritorialized’ sovereignty. Moreover, it shows that at work in the efforts of Seattle and Sydney’s urban indigenous health activists, was the idea of a ‘portable’ or ‘mobile’ indigenous status. This was intended, among other things, to allow indigenous people to live in cities—or wherever they choose for that matter—without having to give up their identity, cultural practices, or their legal status as indigenous people and ensuing ability to make special claims on the government. At stake in their health activism, this dissertation argues, was a form of place-making that aimed to make indigenous people at home everywhere within the national spaces of the U.S. and Australia.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Ngai, Mae
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 6, 2017