“Tibehtalaš” and Harnessing the Flood-Gates of Ethno-Nationalism: Hydroelectric versus Indigenous Power.

In keeping with our interest in Tibetan issues on this blog, I am glad to bring you another guest post by Kristiana Henderson of Pacific Lutheran University.  

Here’s some more Tsampa for thought, especially since there’s even more to this story than meets the eye.  Which story?

As Xinhua put it on March 28:

Tibet has released the “Opinions on Accelerating Tibet’s Water Infrastructure Reforms and Development,” and will attempt to double its average annual investments in water infrastructure projects over the next 10 years compared with 2010, according to the People’s Government of Tibet Autonomous Region.
“Although Tibet is rich with water and hydropower resources, water resources are still one of the key factors in restricting Tibet’s development,” said Zhang Qingli, Party chief of Tibet Autonomous Region. Zhang stressed that it is of great urgency to develop water infrastructure projects in Tibet.


Xinhua further described these celebrations over the funding for hydroelectric dams in Tibet, and most recently said, effectively: “Yay!! More electricity in Tibet!!”

Now, last I checked, there wasn’t all that great of a demand for electricity in most parts of Tibet, considering that many of those living in these especially remote areas are still nomadic.  But of course, that is changing as well as a result of China’s extensive Tibetan nomad relocation programs.  There’s a great article documenting many of the colonial concerns I have been raising in conjunction with my projects, and in following Tibet/Scandinavia comparisons for this blog, on PRI’s The World

You see, when I began to seriously study Tibet and its culture, politics, and (hopefully at a faster pace), language, I tried to remove myself from the bumper-sticker rhetoric of “FREE TIBET!!!” “CULTURAL GENOCIDE!!!” And “发展进步” and “Tibet’s Always Been a Part of China and Always Will Be!” to just try to understand what, in my eyes, was really going on.

So understand that when I say this smacks considerably of “colonialism,” I’m not using the word “colonialism” lightly or with a stereotypically angry, confused undergrad (although that I can be!) with a flair for wanting to liberate anything that sounds cool. What I mean to argue is that the construction of these dams, while a seemingly helpful aspect of development, is sending up a red flag that doesn’t even have to include a bunch of stars in the upper left-hand corner.


Because the story of building dams in the name of “progress,” when in reality the control of water is in all actuality a way of controlling an indigenous people, is nothing new or unique to the land of the Three Gorges Dam. I have also been researching and studying considerably a lot about the Sámi People of Northern Scandinavia and Russia, and in particular, the Sámi of Northern Norway.

You may ask: “The Sami?! Scandinavia?!” Wait a second, I thought those Scandinavians had it all figured out!! I mean, good golly, they have the Nobel Peace Prize, and they even gave it to the Dalai Lama! Surely they wouldn’t have their own post-colonial issues to sort out!!

Oh, but they do, my comrades, but they do.

And, long story short, even those nice, egalitarian, democratically-minded socially-medicated Nordic people have their own not-so-good history of repressing the culture and economic rights of their indigenous groups. Among other things, this included encouraging the development of a pastoralist society’s lands to make way for agriculture and other, more “advanced”  economic practices, after centuries of a “hands-off” policy with minimal political and economic contact, the records that are now being dredged up to prove a should-be-now-unquestioned legitimacy over the most Northern of Nordic lands.

In addition, these also included shifting cultural policies that fluctuated between “Lapp skal være lapp,” or, “The Lapp [derogatory term] shall remain a Lapp,” even if it is just a widdle cute, quaint culture that we can capitalize on for commercial gain, and targets of a vigorous nationalization campaign to encourage the Sámi to see themselves as part of the grand, national fabric/narrative, with their language deemed as inferior to the national languages of Norwegian, Swedish, etc., their educational curricula slanted heavily towards assimilation, because some day, “they’ll see it was for their own good.”

I mean, back in 1850, the Sami even had their own uprising, once only referred to as the “Kautokeino Event” (…)

Interestingly enough, while it was long a source of shame within the Sámi community as figures of authority from both within and outside of the community branded it as simply an example of religious extremism (in this case, Læstadian Christianity) going “too far,” in recent years it has been much more commonly discussed and taken center stage in representing the struggles between colonized, colonizers, and collaborators. For example, I’ve had the opportunity to watch the movie that came out three years ago that recasts the Kautokeino Rebellion as one of struggle against oppression, taking it out of the framework of crazy religious reindeer herders who decided to burn up some booze in Northern Norway. By the way, you can watch this on tudou if you are very, very patient…I like to bring this back into the discussion on the rebellions since the Cultural Revolution in Tibet in particular. While the chronology is not the same as it is in the Sámi community (especially considering that the modern Sámi experience is certainly not that of Tibet), the same back-and –forth pull within the Tibetan community between accepting the “self-shame” in one’s “backward” culture and an attempt at “getting with the program” and outright rejecting these sentiments.

It seems everyone’s been having their 事件 to sort out!

This all brings me to bring up the exhilerating year of 1971, the year of the Alta Conflict, in which the Norwegian government planned to build a dam on the Alta River, a land crucial to the fishing Sami of Northern Norway that has been part of their lands and economic livelihood since time immemorial. The short version of this story is that while the Norwegian government won in the end, the protests against the dam were fierced and the legacy of it is a new Pan-Samism (the term Sápmi is the word for the Sámi national homeland that acknowledges that in the Sámi cosmology, their homeland does not naturally recognize the national borders as defined by Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia..), as before the Sami first and foremost prioritized their local community (the Siida) over a more “national” identity. It was a turning point in the history of Sami-ethnically Norwegian, as the Sami, united in terms of political goals and a more broadened sense of an in-group, struggled against a hegemonic government deciding “for” the Sami that it was in their “Best interest” to build a hydroelectric plant. The Altá River dam still stands today, but now the Norwegian and other Scandinavian governments are beginning to recognize that perhaps more Sámi autonomy would be a nice idea.

Similarly, we can even think locally as many Native American groups all around Washington State, California, Arizona, and, well, frankly everywhere else, have all had their ancestral lands somehow greatly affected by some government, local or federal, deciding to harness the power of water, the voices of these communities drowned out amidst the roar of the hydroelectric turbines. So whenever I flip on a light switch, I have a marginalized indigenous group that lost its salmon fishing rights to thank. Makes me want to switch over to yak butter candles and making my own paper as far as I’m concerned, but I digress.

Back to Tibet. That said, I think that at this point, think you, dear reader(s), can see where I have been going with all of this. In essence, dams, along with trains and railroads, seem to be the infrastructure most intimately connected with indigenous rights and autonomy concerns. At Tibet University, one of the top majors is, indeed, geology and engineering for the very purpose of 发展ing the T.A.R.. Likewise, through conversations with Tibetan students at 藏大, the situation of Tibetan language classes for non-native speakers are not what they used to be, while the geology programs are still going strong. Hmmmmm. Interesting, to say the least….and, of course, let’s not forget that much of this “development aid” comes from Shanghai and Beijing, and many of the names attached to the project do not seem to suggest that this is a Tibetan project of, for, and by the Tibetans.

And it’s not just about geology my friends, let’s remember geoPOLITICS as well.

Do you know why the Norwegian government was so hell-bent on Norwegianizing the Sámi back in the day, and one of its most long-standing concerns up until the collapse of the Soviet Union? Dam, I just gave it away. Yes, even since the 19th Century, the Norwegians were very afraid of Russian claims to their northern-most borders, and they hoped that if they were to gain the “allegiance” of the most northern people on their borders, that they could combat a Russian hegemonic power. Hmmm. Last I checked, Tibet’s waters still led into China’s uneasy neighbor, India. In fact, India is incredibly concerned about this problem, and articles on it have continued to stream through its news generators. Most recently is an editorial article in the Times of India that voices concerns over the future of India’s Brahmaputra waters. China’s response via the Global Times? Get over it, you tree-hugging, Dalai Lama-kissnig wusses: these are international waters, we weren’t really planning to build a dam there anyway. …Oh wait, just kidding, we are.

In fact, the Sámi Parliaments have officially recognized that their history is not unlike the current “Tibet Problem,” and while not has been published since, in the late 1990s and early 2000s they did officially address Tibet and have sided with its goals for self-determination as passed in 1994. In 2006, the Tibet Environmental Watch documented some follow-up in which various other indigenous groups from around the world met to discuss these autonomy concerns. Obviously, these groups do not hold much clout on the world stage – not nearly as much as say, well, the IMF, World Bank, the U.S., China, the EU, the members of the World Trade Federation….but every once and a while they make some noise and cause a stir. Tibet has largely been able to contextualize its own struggle on its own terms, thanks to its Hollywood/Western media publicity and, I would guess, the fact that it gives Westerners an excuse to dislike China further (and historically, use Tibet as a catalyst against those Commies in the 1960s), whereas communities such as the Sámi have had to place their issues in a larger framework because, frankly, Scandinavia just looks so cute and cuddly that they possibly couldn’t have been marginalizing their indigenous communities (or even more, most people think of Scandinavia as a region that is the epitome of “homogenous white,” which it certainly ain’t).

But it appears that Tibet’s “cause” has since come to a standstill, because as China rises, the “weaker” groups from within fall as China is able to hold its ground more and more, and its growing finesse in blocking information and forums from the outside world, especially as a result of the Jasmine Revolution fears and the anniversary of Tiananmen two years ago, will only further block change from within. Even if the Dalai Lama and his cohorts were even in positions of real political power (“religious figurehead” or not), he/they simply cannot do anything more than let Westerners feel vaguely sorry for some people who live in the mountains in what is apparently Western China.

It would do well for Tibet to learn from the Sámi case and perhaps accept that its situation is not so unique – theirs is a struggle very much like those faced around the world. There is strength in numbers, and that includes the numbers of groups banding together to face similar concerns regarding land use rights, political, economic, and cultural autonomy, the preservation of indigenous systems of knowledge, and simply promoting respect/anti-discrimination in the backdrop of these greater powers. If the Tibetans were to recontextualize their concerns into a greater global dialogue on indigeniety, then there many be more cause for international pressure on China. I hope to explore the Sámi-Scandinavia-Tibetan-indigenous connections further as time goes on, because this will continue to add to an extra dimension on what the modern “Tibet Problem” could possibly transform into.

That said, I hope you enjoyed a brief look at Nordic colonialism with reference to the contemporary development politics of the CCP in Tibet. It just strikes me that I’m beginning to detect a pattern.

— Kristiana Henderson


  1. I seem to recall that those warm, furry and democratically enlightened Scandanavian countries, Norway included, also had their own eugenics programs in the near past.

    1. Unfortunately, this is absolutely true. While I suppose this is as good as any place to reassert the dangers of extreme relativism, it is also dangerous to overlook any nation, group of people, or system (be it cultural, political economic, or anything) as “perfect” or elevated too highly. Each has its murkier parts to history. While it would be unfair to equate the extremity of the sins committed by the Scandinavian nations (or indeed, the US), at the end of the day, by simply grouping suffering by nation, we ignore that on a personal level, it ceases to matter. If an individual was a victim of eugenics policy, the result is rather the same and no longer matters whether it happened in Nazi Germany or to a Romani in 1970s Norway. It does not matter whether the skull measurements were taken in the Congo or Saapmi if it was your skull that was measured by some “Anthropologist” or other “social scientist.” The dynamics of power and control are a problem to work through everywhere, exacerbated I believe largely by “Western Progress” as an outgrowth of colonialism, and can be remedied both locally and through a concerted global effort. Regardless, apparently there was a whole book published about 12 years ago on this subject titled “Eugenics and the Welfare State” that documents the inceptions of these policies starting with Denmark in the 1929. Here’s a link to one review. Happy (?) Reading: http://www.historyinreview.org/gunnarnils.html

  2. I suppose this would be as good a forum as any to present to you my new blog I am creating, as I have been getting a lot out of doing these guest blog commentaries. I cannot offer promises on the ongoing success of this blog, or certainly that I can be as prolific as Prof Adam here, but I do want to give this a try. Anyway, here is the link to my blog again (okay, so it was something I ended up dredging up/rediscovering from the ghosts of Anthroplogy 102 Past)


    On this page is a yet a new article I’ve written analyzing a few articles I have been reading regarding Western reporting on Tibet that were contemporary with the 1959 uprising (As a reward for your hard effort for following this link). Tashi delek.

  3. Pingback: wordzailushang

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