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Gender-Based Violence

Claire Urbanski combines scholarship, activism in her work on sacred Indigenous lands

Claire Urbanski


Claire Urbanski joined the Clayman Institute as a postdoctoral fellow in September 2022. She earned a PhD in feminist studies from the University of California-Santa Cruz, with designated emphases in critical race and ethnic studies and anthropology. She was a 2021-2022 Charlotte Newcome Doctoral Dissertation Fellow. Urbanski’s scholarship and teaching work are grounded in her ongoing community organizing work for the protection and return of Indigenous Ohlone sacred sites on Lisjan Ohlone homelands (the East Bay area). Her research examines the role of colonial spiritual terror and Indigenous sacred site desecration in the formation and reproduction of United States settler colonialism. Learn more about Urbanski and her research through the following questions and answers.

Your work includes an interdisciplinary mix of activism, critical race studies, feminist studies, and more. What experiences led you to this research and activist work?

As a teenager, I got involved in advocacy work at a local domestic abuse and rape crisis center.

During this time, I had become entirely consumed by a growing awareness of how sexual and gender-based violence structured and shaped the world around me. I had witnessed the toll that domestic abuse and sexual violence had taken on the lives of those closest to me, and watched as this violence was condoned and perpetuated by social institutions, friends, and family.

The more I became aware of the pervasiveness of such violence, the more I was driven by an overwhelming need to make sense of it, to understand how it had become so normalized, and what it would take to fully uproot it.

I had intuited that sexual violence was not something experientially isolated to the body, but was rather something that was embedded into place – that was imbued into our ways of knowing and relating to one another and with the earth.

I soon found my way to works by Black, Indigenous, and women of color feminists that affirmed these knowledges and helped me to understand sexual and gender-based violence in contextual relation with (and as part of) other processes of power and oppression. They also helped me to recognize that I was experiencing an unraveling of the world as I had previously known it – a world structured through sexual and gender violence. My need to make sense and “grasp hold of” this violence was a response to having become disoriented in what was no longer a familiar and stable world.

Through works by Indigenous women, I began to conceptualize gender and sexual violence in the context of colonialism – and specifically of settler colonialism. This required me to examine my own relationship to land and to call into question my own participation within settler colonization. I again experienced an unraveling of the world when the truth of my own complicity within settler colonization finally fully clicked. The extent to which I was able to maintain the belief of my own innocence, even when given all the facts, astounded me. I had grown up in the city of Minneapolis, (arguably the) birthplace of the American Indian Movement. How was it possible that I had never once questioned my own relationship to the violence that formed the requisite conditions of my very possibility?

Ever since, I have worked to understand the forms of power that regenerate such sweeping, belligerent oblivion and which imbue settler desires for, and relations with land.

I now comprehend sexual violence in contextual relation with the extractive violence that is definitive of the colonial world, while continuously expanding and adapting my comprehension of sexual, intimate, and spiritual violence in the world.

Today, my work retains at its core my originary commitment to combating sexual and gender-based violence; it is just that I now recognize it to be bound up with the protection and return of Indigenous sacred lands to Indigenous stewardship.

In your dissertation, “Spiritual Conquest: Desecration and Settler Colonial Extraction on Stolen and Sacred Lands,” you examine the desecration of Indigenous sacred sites, burial grounds, and the theft of Indigenous dead. What methods did you use to approach this research?

My objective in Spiritual Conquest is to trace the processes and formations of colonial power that are critical to sustain and reproduce its existence, yet which are rendered unknowable by Western epistemological frameworks and disciplinary formations. I therefore mobilize women of color feminist, decolonial, and queer methods which engage embodied and experiential knowing as research technologies. Without such methods, I would not have been able to even conceive my research questions, as what I study is deemed to be “not real” by Western science.

The modes of spiritual violence that I study cannot be made sense of – they cannot be made perceptible or legible to Western knowledge frameworks, as such frameworks already render its non-existence. 

Furthermore, as Saidiya Hartman has described, the unattainability of “knowability” in colonial archives is rife with the desire for self-making through the desire for recovery, recuperation, and repair—the desire to know and make sense of illogical horror. More than an issue of the impossibility of ontological translation, I recognize that, for myself, any desire to know Indigenous experience is to reproduce the relations of spiritual violence and colonial knowledge/power that I critique. To avoid reinscribing the same colonial violence that I critique, I look to practices of refusing colonial demands for intelligibility, as theorized by Indigenous studies scholars like Audra Simpson. I hold myself accountable (albeit imperfectly) to the movements I participate in (and to which my research is grounded in) and take direction from them about what should and should not be shared.

My project does not attempt to make such spiritual violence legible as a response or remedy to colonial erasure. Yet, at the same time, because my project seeks to understand the processes and forms of power that facilitate colonial dispossession while simultaenously erasing its existence, what I pursue is already a project of making-legible on colonialism’s terms. Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely because colonial epistemologies already render spiritual violence as belief-based—and thus, as “not-real”—that my dissertation practices an “un-making,” or unsettling, of colonial knowledge/power.

What role does gender play in your historical research as well as your organizing work with Bay Area Ohlone leadership?

As I previously commented, gender violence is inextricable from our ways of relating to land; specifically when it comes to relations with land as property. For colonial capitalist worldviews, land is something to be possessed, owned, exploited, bought, and sold. These relationships to land are extractive; they are about exerting dominance and control over land.

Therefore, to return Indigenous lands is not simply to materially transfer ownership of property from one set of hands to another; rather, 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.

In order to claim and access land, colonial capitalism requires the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Such dispossession has required the enforcement of colonial heteropatriarchal sex and gender systems. This has especially entailed the unrelenting deployment of violence against the bodies of Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirits, as well as queer and trans Indigenous peoples.

The enforcement of colonial heteropatriarchal sex and gender systems was also the enforcement of colonial property systems. The enforcement of these colonial social orders required the simultaenous banishment of Indigenous knowledges, ways of life, and ways of being.

Therefore, to return Indigenous lands is not simply to materially transfer ownership of property from one set of hands to another; rather, 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.

This is what I understand to be expressed in the term “rematriation,” as it is used by the Sogorea Te Land Trust (STLT). As the STLT defines it, “rematriation” is “to restore a people to their rightful place in sacred relationship with their ancestral land.” More precisely, the STLT describes rematriation as “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.” The restoration of these sacred relationships is a gradual and constant process—it is the restoration of practices and 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 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. This understanding is what guides my research and activism.

Building on your recent work, what are some other opportunities for research that you would like to pursue?

I believe it is imperative to analyze the colonial institutional theft and collection of Native American human remains as mutually constituted by its theft and collection of African-American human remains; projects which are seemingly always regarded apart in separation from one another.

This is made further apparent by the recent case in which Princeton University and UPenn were discovered to be in joint possession of the human remains of two Black children who had been murdered in the 1985 police bombing of the MOVE house in Philadelphia, PA. The remains of the children were disappeared from the bombing site and never recovered until March of 2021, when they were identified while being used as educational props in a virtual Anthropology course lecture.

This would also allow for greater understanding of the ways that desecration and theft/collection of Indigenous human remains is bound up with—and mutually constituted through—other racialized and gendered forms of colonial state violence, specifically anti-Black police violence and state terror.