“The Sulu Princess We Couldn’t Tame”: Tarhata Kiram, Sovereignty, and Subversion in Philippine-US Histories

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 1:30 PM
Room 603 (Colorado Convention Center)
Genevieve Clutario, Harvard University
In February 1927, Tarhata Kiram publicly challenged accusations of sedition made against her by the American colonial government. In her response she also provided a critique of U.S. colonial practices, especially the education system, which she declared failed in making her a “slave.” Kiram’s response highlighted her fraught and complex relationship with the United States as well as Filipinos, stating, “Since America took away the bolos and barongs, weapons that the Sulu needs to keep his old enemy, the Filipino from walking all over him, some one must help him retain his standing in the South Seas.  I am going to do what I can.”

Through the figure of Tarhata Kiram, a Moro princess from the Sulu archipelago, this paper traces the racialized and gendered practices of seizing and reclaiming sovereignty. United States colonial officials sought to assuage the continued “Moro problem” and solidify U.S. authority by disciplining Kiram, imparting American normative notions of gender by transforming her appearance to look “modern” and “American,” and educating her in American values, customs, and history.  However, Kiram’s actions, writings, performances, and self-stylization upon her return to the Philippines disassembled the careful crafting of U.S. education in a series of acts of subversion. I argue that Kiram claimed a personal and communal sovereignty in several ways: participation in uprisings in Sulu; her public critiques of both U.S. empire and consolidation of a Filipino elite power; and finally, her physical appearance that rejected American aesthetics of modern femininity. Ultimately, Kiram embodied the complexities and tensions not only between the Philippines and the United States, but also between regions and ethnic groups, calling into question dominant narratives of nationalism, empire, and sovereignty.

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