Dr. Susan Burch professes American studies at Middlebury College in Vermont. “Her research and teaching interests,” says her college bio, “focus on histories of deaf, disability, Mad, race, ethnicity, Indigeneity, and gender and sexuality. Material culture, oral history, and inclusive design play an important role in her courses.”
The Society for Disability Studies honored Burch in 2019 for a “legacy of mentorship that has brought new scholars into Disability Studies and… expanded the impact of Critical Disability Studies.” Critical Disability Studies challenges ableism the way Critical Race Theory challenges racism; the two fields overlap in theory and practice:
Ableism and resistance to ableism is central to the tradition of critical disability theory (Campbell 2008b). To conceive of its importance, consider the parallel to racism: racism and anti-racist work is a necessary and indisputable part of the tradition of critical race theory, regardless of how racism is understood and framed. But, it would be wrong to consider ableism as an additive to sexism and racism. Instead, theorizing ableism is part of a “critique of the dominant order, the other, or alterity” (Goodley 2009).
Critical disability theory is a diverse set of approaches that largely seek to theorize disability as a cultural, political, and social phenomenon, rather than an individualized, medical matter attached to the body. In this way, it shares goals with traditional disability studies. But, additionally, critical disability theory actively seeks alliances and has produced work in conversation with other key areas of critical thought: critical race theory, postcolonial theory, queer theory, and Continental philosophy, among other strategies. It also reflexively considers the exclusions, framing, and normative presuppositions of disability studies, favoring intersectional approaches and expansive inclusion. Critical disability theory presumes that those persons to whom the label “disability” attaches share in overlapping and intensifying oppressions with pathologized and devalued persons in circumstances not readily recognized as “disabled” (Minich 2016) [Melinda C. Hall, “Critical Disability Theory,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2019.09.23].
Burch’s research on the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, presented in her 2021 book Committed: Remembering Native Kinship In and Beyond Institutions, exemplifies this intersection of disability and race studies by examining the racist/colonialist claim that all American Indians were “mentally defective and in need of containment.”
Burch lectured on her book at the Canton Public Library on July 30. In a script for a version of her book talk presented at the University of Pittsburgh on January 19, 2022, Burch explains combination of discrimination against race and disability that underlay the oppression wrought at the Canton Asylum, with the specific example of Prairie Band Potawotami healer O-Zoush-Quah, a women imprisoned in Canton for two decades:
Acknowledging multiple sovereign nations and systems of medicine resists what American studies scholar Jessica Cowing calls settler ableism. Ableism is a system of power and privilege that hierarchically organizes people and societies based on particular cultural values of productivity, competitive achievement, efficiency, capacity, and linear progress. Settler ableism actively serves and reflects broader colonial values and aspirations. Imposing settler forms of medicine and knowledge practices represents one way settler ableism functions. [To ground this idea: the BIA and Asylum Superintendents, drawing on culturally specific concepts of normality, fitness, and competency, evaluated O-Zoush-Quah’s actions: pathologizing her alleged “temper” (being “cross” and sometimes yelling) and multiple attempts to snatch nurses’ keys, to her use of “profane and vulgar language” (which likely described her primary use of Potawatomi since O- Zoush-Quah knew very little English)]. The labels in O- Zoush-Quah’s medical files, like others detained at Canton, varied widely in each instance (illustrating the malleability of diagnoses and diagnostic labels), but they all shared the foundational belief that Indigenous bodyminds were inherently deficient. In this cultural framework, ‘problems’ were located within individuals; solutions focused on the individuals and required “experts,” such as social workers, clergymen, and Western biomedical doctors. This self-affirming cycle validated continuous state-sponsored surveillance and containment [Susan Burch, “Institutional Racism: Remembering Struggle, Survival, and Resistance at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, 1092–2015,” access script for book talk at University of Pittsburgh, 2022.01.19].
Burch’s statement about a “system of power and privilege that hierarchically organizes people and societies” sounds dangerously similar to the “divisive concepts” that Governor Kristi Noem is crusading to cleanse from our schools. That reference to “cultural values of productivity, competitive achievement, efficiency, capacity” sounds like the “hard work ethic” that Governor Noem has sought to insulate from any “critical race theory” critique.
Burke thanks many descendants of Canton Asylum inmates, tribal elders, historians, archivists, and librarians for helping her do the research necessary to produce this book, including Tamara St. John of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Tribe.
Tamara St. John, who also happens to be a Republican legislator seeking reëlection, helped Susan Burch write a book studying the oppression of American Indians at the Canton Asylum from the perspective of critical disability theory and critical race theory.
Tamara St. John, whom Governor Noem appointed to help rewrite South Dakota’s K-12 social studies curriculum standards, helped write a book on critical race theory.
Tamara St. John is thus actively promoting critical race theory, something Kristi Noem has said disqualifies a person from public office.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Governor Noem would support a tribal archivist who is actively promoting critical race theory in South Dakota. Governor Noem herself has actively practiced critical race theory in her acknowledgement of the racist, colonialist history of America’s concentration camps for Indian children. But the active promotion of critical race theory by Noem and her favorite tribal legislator makes it hard to take seriously Noem’s attempt to use critical race theory as a derogatory label against her opponents.