Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Susan V Donaldson
Titled Settler States of Ability: Assimilation, Incarceration, and Native Women’s Crip Interventions, my dissertation examines narratives of Native women and youth incarcerated in federal institutions such as boarding schools and psychiatric facilities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Native women and youth have been subject to forms of assimilation that assert gender conformity and ablebodiedness/ablemindedness as qualifications for inclusion in U.S. national life. Nevertheless, they were and have remained key narrators of Native/Indigenous cultural histories and the long-term effects of historic and ongoing colonization and incarceration. Each chapter focuses on a particular historical moment in which narratives—memoir, literature, congressional testimony, and archival records—critique settler techniques of gender assimilation that have historically relied on ableism, a system of oppression that targets disabled people. For example, Native women and youth have long been at the forefront of health and environmental activism. Throughout 2016 Native women and youth led the opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Considering the centrality of their activism, this project examines how the federal government has long recognized Native women and youths’ political power. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) targeted them as the primary subjects of assimilation projects intended to mold ablebodied/ableminded, healthy, productive, and gender conforming subjects beginning with sites of homemaking and domesticity. In other words, understanding the significance of Native/Indigenous health and environmental activism requires uncovering the ways in which the settler state has historically undermined Native/Indigenous political agency. My dissertation traces how this biopolitical management of Native/Indigenous life, or what I call processes of settler ableism, targets Native women and youth in different ways and in multiple time periods. To tell the story of Native women and youths’ rhetorical resistance to ableist gender assimilation methods, I analyze and do close readings of nineteenth-century American literature, Native/Indigenous memoir, congressional testimony, and archival records. I foreground this study of assimilation tactics with Native/Indigenous scholarship on settler colonialism, a framework for recognizing that Indigenous tribal nations predate the formation of the United States. Additionally, I draw on critical disability theory to examine state institutions as spaces and contexts for enforcing Native/Indigenous assimilation as an embodied process, and settler cultures and political forms, such as heteronormative nuclear family structures. I argue that Native narratives of colonization and incarceration critique federal modes of assimilation such as the boarding school system and contest historical arguments that Native women and youth required rigorous training in order to embody industrious forms of settler domesticity.
© The Author
Cowing, Jessica, "Settler States Of Ability: Assimilation, Incarceration, And Native Women's Crip Interventions" (2020). Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects. William & Mary. Paper 1616444427.
Available for download on Friday, August 14, 2026