With Immediate Cause: Intense Dreaming as World-making

by Lena Palacios

Boston, 1979. Photo by Tina Cross
Boston, 1979. Photo by Tina Cross


We cannot live without our lives.

–Banner held by Combahee River Collective members protesting the sexual assault and murder of twelve Black women in the Boston area in the first six months of 1979.[1]

The body count of stigmatized, criminalized, incarcerated, legally eliminated, socially dead, expendable and disposable, sexually violated, tortured, missing and murdered Indigenous girls, girls and women of color, queer and trans youth of color, continues to climb. The growing murder-suicide rates, statistics of missing and murdered Indigenous and Black women, should no longer surprise or overwhelm us but incite us to urgent action and theorization in line with radical women of color feminist movements mobilizing to end gendered and racialized violence endemic to the carceral state. A feeling of mortal urgency hounds us everywhere, every day, all the time, all at once in white settler societies like ours; it surrounds, envelops, and blankets us, most often lulling us into a deep, depressed, dreamless stupor rendering us hopeless and immobilized. Many of us have already lost the battle. How many Black and Indigenous girls and women have had their lives cut short by interpersonal, intimate, state and state-sponsored violence since the Black socialist lesbian feminist Combahee River Collective first held up that banner boldly declaring “We cannot live without our lives” and initiated a self-help and anti-violence community mobilization in the late 1970s? At other times, when not killed-off, bought-off, coopted, or placated by the carceral state and its so-called ‘kinder and gentler’ politics of recognition and reconciliation and its non-profit, professionalized social service apparatuses, we channel the pent-up sum of our intergenerational rage into ‘dreaming big’ and ‘making power’ within our families, intimate relations, and communities. The mortal urgency lies in us staying dormant and continuing to patiently over-rely on the carceral state to guarantee the health of our lands and waterways, our human and civil rights, our bodily integrity, our safety and security, our health and well-being, our children’s futures rather than aligning ourselves with radical Black feminist, Indigenous decolonial, and prison abolitionist movements. We fail to listen and actively disengage with these (re)emergent and resurgent movements that resist the liberal and neoliberal state’s politics of recognition, visibility, and inclusion at our own peril. Five hundred years after the advent of colonial genocide and chattel slavery, the stakes are as high as ever. As Ntozake Shange declares, “We all have immediate cause.”

As Indigenous feminist Paula Gunn Allen put it, so much has been taken away by racialized gendered violence and carceral state violence that “the place we live now is an idea.”[2] I am compelled by the kinds of futures that Indigenous feminists and radical women of color feminists envision, and create, outside of Western, non-Indigenous inflections of sovereignty, the nation-state, and a liberal politics of recognition. In order to support these generative and transformative projects and ways of knowing, we need to visualize, speak, and practice toward what we do dream and create.

According to Dian Million, “intense dreaming” is indispensable to the urgent demand made by Indigenous feminist activist-scholars to sidestep the “static taxidermies” of Western epistemologies and to privilege Indigenous non-Western ways of knowing.[3] Million writes:

Dreaming…is the effort to make sense of relations in the worlds we live, dreaming and empathizing intensely our relations with past and present and the future without the boundaries of linear time. Dreaming is a communicative sacred activity. Dreaming often allows us to creatively side-step all the neat little boxes that obscure larger relations and syntheses of imagination. … [D]reaming, theory, narrative, and critical thinking are not exclusive of each other. They form different ways of knowing, and I will ask that we might imagine them as uneasy relations and alliances that may acknowledge inclusion while we call for respecting necessary boundaries.[4]

For me, Million’s highly generative “intense dreaming” is founded in radical relational imaginings, the politics of mutual respect and accountability, and transformative justice feminist praxis. Beyond the rational, Western ways of knowing, there are relational ways of knowing that draw from sources we feel, desire, dream, and empathize with rather than from detached positions we rationalize from. The activist scholarship of Indigenous feminist and radical women of color feminists free up our imaginations about what world we really want to live in.

Acknowledging that are our minds, hearts, and political imaginations have been captured by the carceral state and white settler imaginaries, I push back throughout my activist-scholarship against a purist politics that mistakenly believes that there is a clearly demarcated and pure “outside” to the current system. As Million reminds us, “we dance in a politically electrified field most of our lives.”[5] Indigenous feminist conceptualizations of sovereignty and decolonization as well as Black radical feminist political claims to what Saidiya Hartman would call statelessness, homelessness, and motherless-ness[6] have, however, furnished new ways for breaking the stranglehold of carceral state necropower as well as provided answers to the questions that have weighed most heavily on my mind throughout this project: To whom do we run for cover from the carceral state? What do these political formations and autonomous spaces that do not rely on the nation-state look and feel like? Can we actually achieve a freedom from interpersonal, sexual, and carceral state violence? The felt theory and activist-scholarship of Indigenous feminist and radical women of color feminist formations, specifically feminist formations like INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Young Women’s Empowerment Project, Sista II Sista, Project NIA, UBUNTU, the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, Families of Sisters in Spirit, No More Silence and the Native Youth Sexual Health Network or those found in the Free CeCe Campaign or the Idle No More/Indigenous Nationhood Movement have helped us to denaturalize white settler colonialism, carceral feminisms, and their genealogies. Our present reality no longer has to be assumed.

Driven by a principled sense of mortal urgency, grassroots, volunteer-led, local and transnational groups like Families of Sisters in Spirit (FSIS), No More Silence (NMS), and the Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN), for example, embrace a politics of Indigenous resurgence and are interested in nurturing self-determined and community-led responses to racialized gendered violence targeting Indigenous girls and women rather than relying on the Canadian nation-state and further engaging with and appealing to state institutions and government bodies. In their joint statement, “It Starts With Us,” which lays the groundwork to support the resurgence of community-based responses to violence, these three Indigenous-led organizations name specific forms of state violence and identify the harms of going through “the proper channels” of state-led interventions—by way of providing testimonies to British Columbia’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry to making recommendations to the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).[7] For these organizations, heightened calls for a national inquiry into the phenomenon of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the wake of the disappearance and murder of Loretta Saunders, a pregnant young Inuk graduate student who was writing her thesis on the murders of three Nova Scotia Indigenous women, is a waste of time.[8]

More than a waste of time, however, an inquiry, as Robyn Bourgeois argues, “allows the Canadian state to appear that it is doing something about violence against women without ever having to actually do anything.[9] Establishing an inquiry or special committee to examine an issue that has successfully been defined in mainstream media and civic fora as a social problem has historically been a common strategy by the state to silence the voices of opposition. After warning other Indigenous women who are advocating for the inquiry about how the “colonial government can, and will, define, dictate, and decide the purpose, mandate, process, and outcome of that inquiry,” Andrea Landry deploys an outlaw discourse that delegitimizes an inquiry “established by a structure meant to murder, rape, and annihilate the Indigenous self.”[10] Landry writes, “if the colonial government were to put the dollars in to ‘fix’ an issue that they continuously create and justify, and if we were to agree to work together, we would be shaking hands with and embodying the oppressor.”[11] Landry powerfully equates Indigenous women’s falling prey to the “assimilative lure of the statist politics of recognition”[12] in the form of a national inquiry to that of the visceral pain induced by internalized oppression and violent victimization at the hands of the white-settler state. While nothing can be gained from engaging in a liberal politics of recognition, inclusion, and visibility—for Indigenous women, in particular—everything can be lost. Instead of engaging with carceral and settler states, these radical Indigenous feminists are “call[ing] attention back to ourselves; we have the answers and solutions … we always have.”[13] The solutions in which communities are already actively engaged range from Indigenous resurgence, teach-ins and critical education, media-arts justice, community accountability and transformative justice, supporting Indigenous people in the sex trades and street economies, centering Indigenous youth leadership and intergenerational organizing, and Annual February 14th Memorial Marches for Missing and Murdered Women[14], to the “countless acts of hidden resistance and kitchen table resistance aimed at ensuring their children and grandchildren could live as Indigenous Peoples.”[15]

It is imperative to provide a historical context and to mine the genealogy of Indigenous, queer woman of color feminist anti-violence activism in order to denaturalize the present; the ability to remember something differently tells us that the carceral state, carceral feminisms, and white settler futurity are not inevitable and can be dismantled. The powerful analytics and politics discussed here have refused to reproduce what Sandy Grande would call the “theory of property holders” perpetuated in “whitestream feminisms.”[16] Additionally, as Audra Simpson reminds us—her people—the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke are “nationals of a precontact Indigenous polity that…insist on being and acting as peoples who belong to a nation other than the United States or Canada” and who intimately understand that “there is more than one political show in town” beyond the much sought-after and presumed “benevolence” of a multicultural, liberal politics of recognition.[17] While the “place we live now” may seem forlorn, barren, and desolate for Indigenous feminist and radical women of color feminists, there is a historical context and precedent for anti-racist feminist anti-violence coalition- and movement- building by those under siege by white settler colonialism and carceral state violence. While a political formation based in transformative feminist and prison abolitionist praxes may seem incommensurable and (often) impractical in activist circles that privilege short-term legal remedies over long-term political movement-building, it is not—and never has been—an impossible politics. It is both possible and preferred.

To underscore the historical continuity of the imaginative visioning and intense dreaming of Indigenous feminist and radical women of color feminism, I briefly return here to the importance of intergenerational, historical memory. I want to return to a brief discussion of a grassroots, feminist anti-violence movement—active approximately thirty-five years ago—that went beyond discursive resistance and mere survival to engage in transformative feminist praxis and speculate about Black female bodily integrity and Black socialist lesbian feminist sovereignty: the Combahee River Collective.[18]

Black women, “Third World” women of color, and Indigenous activists within the decolonized space of transformative justice feminist organizing, engage in ceremony and the communicative sacred activity of dreaming. Those of us currently working to build a community accountability activist circle driven by criminalized and formerly incarcerated women intimately know another world is possible. At one of our organizing meetings, I would like us to continue to “learn in social action”[19] and study together one of the early transformative justice feminist projects advanced by the Combahee River Collective, a Boston-based Black socialist lesbian feminist organization which began as a chapter of the short-lived National Black Feminist Organization in 1974.[20] The Combahee River Collective’s widely circulated, bilingual Spanish-English pamphlet entitled “Black Women: Why Did They Die?” addresses the sexual assault and murder of twelve Black and one White women in the Boston area in the first months of 1979.[21] Preceding a list of transformative justice-like measures Black, Puerto Rican, and other “Third World” women could take to protect themselves, participate in radical self-defence classes, and build community safety programs[22], the pamphlet forwards an intersectional analysis of the murders that goes “beyond ‘Don’t walk home alone at night.’”[23]

Ntozake Shange, 1978
Ntozake Shange, 1978

Immediately following the analysis is a poem by Ntozake Shange entitled “with no immediate cause” which discusses the state’s complicity in racialized gendered violence and Shange’s own feelings of impotence to stem the crushing tide of racist, misogynist violence.[24] Noting the devaluation of Black girls’ lives by the carceral state, the pamphlet authors write: “The mother of a fifteen-year-old girl, one of the first two victims, says that when she reported the disappearance of her daughter to the police, they hesitated to file a report, claiming that the girl had probably gone off with a pimp.”[25] Their analysis investigated the complicity of the racialized carceral state and the mainstream media in these young women’s murders, underscoring the difficulties of forging alliances with both white mainstream feminists and hetero-patriarchal Black male leadership. The pamphlet challenged the call for Black men to “protect their women” and called out white feminists’ investments in upholding normative white femininity which racializes Black men as well as Black women.[26] The authors noted that “when eleven white women were raped in another part of Boston, all describing their assailant as a Black man, the press and the city officials were quick to recognize their plight and a great deal of attention was drawn to their situation.”[27] Through their collective analysis, the Combahee River Collective underscored how a singular focus on race or gender unwittingly reproduced the normative narratives of the carceral state and the normative institutions of middle-class domesticity, white femininity, and “proper” sexuality. Such a perspective was therefore inadequate to address the interlocking forms of violence targeting Black, Latina, and other “Third World” women of color.

The group CRISIS, with a focus on self-help and anti-violence community mobilization, and the Committee for Women’s Safety, a coalition of Black, Latina, and White antiracist feminists working to develop programs for community safety, were formed as a result of Combahee’s transformative justice feminist praxis.[28] I would argue that the majority—if not all—of the feminism of color and trans feminism of color anti-violence movements recognize the Combahee River Collective as one of their direct antecedents. As Robin D. G. Kelley states: “Radical black feminists have never confined their vision to just the emancipation of black women or women in general or all black people for that matter. Rather they are the theorists and proponents of a radical humanism committed to liberating humanity and reconstructing social relations across the board.”[29] Demonstrating this radical humanism and one of the most compelling aspects of Combahee’s anti-violence organizing work, I have found especially moving a photograph that depicts a banner held by a group of Black and Latina demonstrators at one of the many rallies to protest the murders and lack of police accountability. The banner reads, “3rd World Women: We Cannot Live Without Our Lives.”[30] The banner tells us how Black women and other women of color’s lives have been marked for legal elimination, social death, and extermination by the carceral state. When the promise of life is not extended universally by the state or when life is premised merely on surviving legacies of interpersonal and state violence, it is rendered meaningless, a “death in life” without ceremony.

Every day that these prison abolitionist and transformative justice collectives meet, break bread together, and model mutual responsibility and accountability in order to interrupt interpersonal, sexual, and state violence against Indigenous and Black girls and women in their families, communities, schools, and workplaces, they evoke both their ancestors and descendants and partake in ceremony. Every time these collectives of girls and women engage in a politics that calls for collective self-recognition and a “turning away” from the carceral state, every time they day-dream about the Americas disappearing into a singular landmass and sacred place called Turtle Island, these collectives engage in ceremony. The kinds of futures evoked during these ceremonies are the worlds of which our abolitionist movements dream.

About the author: Lena Palacios is a tenure-track Assistant Professor in the Departments of Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies and Chicano & Latino Studies (University of Minnesota-Twin Cities). Her research and teaching focuses on transnational feminist prison studies, Indigenous, Chicana & Latina, queer feminisms, race-radical & critical race feminisms, transformative justice and community accountability, media justice, as well as participatory action research.


[1] Combahee River Collective, “Why Did They Die? A Document of Black Feminism.” Radical America 13 no. 6 (November/December 1979): 41–50.

[2] Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 9.

[3] Dian Million, “Intense Dreaming: Theories, Narratives, and Our Search for Home,” The American Indian Quarterly 35 no. 3 (2011): 313–33, 315.

[4] Ibid., 314-15

[5] Ibid., 316

[6] See Saidiya V. Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

[7] Families of Sisters in Spirit, No More Silence, and Native Youth Sexual Health Network, “It Starts With Us: Supporting the Resurgence of Community-Based Responses to Violence,” Indigenous Nationhood Movement. March 14, (2014) http://nationsrising.org/it-starts-with-us/. Also online at http://www.nativeyouthsexualhealth.com/march142014.pdf.

[8]  CBC News, “Loretta Saunders Homicide Sparks Call by Native Group for Public Inquiry.” CBC News, February 27, 2014, http://www.cbc.ca/1.2552572.

[9] Robyn Bourgeois, “National Inquiry On Missing, Murdered Women Not Best Answer.” The Huffington Post, December 21, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/robyn-bourgeois/missing-women-inquiry-report-vancouver-pickton_b_2333262.html.

[10] Andrea Landry, “Why We Don’t Need a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Inquiry.” Blog. Last Real Indians (2014), http://lastrealindians.com/why-we-dont-need-a-missing-and-murdered-indigenous-womens-inquiry-by-andrea-landry/.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Glen S. Coulthard, “Subjects of Empire: Indigenous Peoples and the `Politics of Recognition’ in Canada,” Contemporary Political Theory 6 no. 4 (2007): 437–60, 456.

[13] Families of Sisters in Spirit, No More Silence, and Native Youth Sexual Health Network (2014).

[14] Native Youth Sexual Health Network, “For Each Bead, Moccasin Top & Ceremony for Our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Families: NYSHN Statement of Support & Media Advisory for Walking With Our Sisters,” (2013a) http://www.nativeyouthsexualhealth.com/wwossupportnyshn.pdf; 2013b. “Responding to the Violence of Ongoing Colonialism on December 17th: International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.” http://www.nativeyouthsexualhealth.com/dec172013.pdf; 2014. “February 14th Women’s Memorial Marches – Not Forgetting the Legacy and Honoring through Action.” http://www.nativeyouthsexualhealth.com/feb142014.pdf.

[15] Kiera L Ladner and Leanne Simpson, “This Is an Honour Song,” in This Is an Honour Song: Twenty Years since the Blockades, an Anthology of Writing on the “Oka Crisis,” edited by Kiera L Ladner and Leanne Simpson (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Pub, 2010), 8.

[16] Sandy Grande, Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004), 148

[17] Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 2, 11.

[18] Combahee River Collective, “Why Did They Die?”

[19] Griff Foley, Learning in Social Action: A Contribution to Understanding Informal Education (Bonn; Leicester; London; New York: Zed, 1999).

[20] Alethia Jones and Virginia Eubanks, eds., Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith (Albany: SUNY Press, 2014), 43.

[21] Combahee River Collective, “Why Did They Die?”

[22] Ibid., 47.

[23] Jones and Eubanks, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, 42.

[24] Combahee River Collective, “Why Did They Die?”, 48-49.

[25] Ibid., 41.

[26] Ibid., 46.

[27] Ibid., 42.

[28] Ibid., 42 & 46; Jones and Eubanks, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, 71-74.

[29] Robin D. G Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 137.

[30] Combahee River Collective, “Why Did They Die?”, 43.

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