ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Storytelling and Place-making among Indigenous Youth in the Indian Eastern Himalayan borderlands


Bentley Jenny - University of Zurich, Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, Zurich, Switzerland


16 – Re-orienting Borderlands:Beyond spatial fixations in South Asia


 The paper discusses “Himalayan counter-geography” (Gohain 2020) in the Indian Himalayan borderlands between Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. Through a decolonial approach (including a workshop/mentorship with Indigenous knowledge keepers and diverse forms of co-creation, conceptualized with my colleague Minket Lepcha), Lepcha youth was supported in collecting narratives of sacred places in the Sikkim West Bengal Hills. For this, they reconnected with elders of their ancestral villages – using basic research tools. Based on their data, the youth created expressions (videos, photo essays, comics, tapestry, etc.). Then, a Lepcha artist and shaman wove the youth’s narratives into a textile map. The decolonial and performative approach to place-making follows the individual’s journeys of self-discovering their multiple relations to place, ancestry, and sacredness in a peer network, beyond but in interaction with the wider political setting of Sikkimese state-exclusivism, statehood demand of the Gorkhaland Movement, and precarity of marginalized and militarized borderland existence. The Indigenous mapping exercise allows to visualize fragmentation, trans-boundary connections, and co-existence of multiple attachments to place. We theorize that storytelling and different forms of expressions centre Lepcha ontological world- and place-making beyond the dominant essentialist or deconstructionist discourses of ethnic/national belonging and give new insights into borderland lives.