What is decolonization and why does it matter?

What is decolonization and why does it matter?

Support our journalism. Become a Patron!
September 21, 2012

Eric Ritskes is a Managing Editor at Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, a newly established Open Access journal committed to the vital work of decolonization.

The much-anticipated first issue of Decolonization Journal is now available at Decolonization.org

Decolonization is a goal but it is not an endpoint. I like this open-ended beginning because it speaks to two things: that the struggle for decolonization is a journey that is never finished and that, on this journey, uncertainty is not to be feared; Mariolga Reyes Cruz (in our first issue) describes it as: “moving towards a different and tangible place, somewhere out there, where no one has really ever been.” I don’t mean that decolonization is elusive and constantly deferred – an unattainable ‘pipe dream’ – but that it is a series of what Jeff Corntassel calls “everyday acts of resurgence” which regenerate Indigenous knowledges, epistemologies, and ways of life. These Indigenous knowledges are always adapting, always creating, always moving forward – there is no stopping them, no finality. Decolonization is a tangible unknown.

As an editor at Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, I see the space we are working to create as one of these everyday acts of decolonization. Decolonization engages with imperialism and colonialism at every level. This entails an on the ground resistance to the corporate and national take overs of land, as well as the slow ‘CO2lonialism’ of toxic waste, oil spills, carbon markets, and pollution that threaten the land. This means ‘writing back’ against the ongoing colonialism and colonial mentalities that permeates education, media, government policies, and ‘common sense’. For us, it also means challenging how higher education, research and publishing are complicit in and, in fact, vital to the colonial oppression of Indigenous peoples around the globe.

Disturbing Trends

Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, in their article in our first issue, state: “Decolonization doesn’t have a synonym”; it is not a substitute for ‘human rights’ or ‘social justice’, though undoubtedly they are connected in various ways. Decolonization demands an Indigenous framework and a centering of Indigenous land, Indigenous sovereignty, and Indigenous ways of thinking. Too often, decolonization becomes bastardized, sidelined, or simply misunderstood – in creating a space such as Decolonization, there is the chance to ‘write back’ against these trends, to engage and oppose colonialism, as well as to connect and support Indigeneity globally.

One of these trends is the appropriation of Indigeneity, of non-Indigenous activists in North America playing Indian in critical movements (especially in regards to Indigenous spirituality). In a letter to the Occupy Wall Street movement John Paul Montano wrote an open letter on his blog demanding that protestors recognize the ongoing colonialism and occupation of the land they were protesting on. One commenter replied in classic fashion, checking all the ‘appropriation boxes’: claiming similar experiences as a ‘displaced Irish person’, claiming experience with Indigenous peoples as a grounds for validation, as well as appropriating Indigenous spirituality to argue “I stole no land” and that we should “focus on the future”.  Indigeneity is taken up as a cloak to hide further exploitation of Indigenous peoples.

Beyond the sort of ‘White Shamanism’ and ‘We are all Indigenous’ discourses, playing Indian runs even deeper. In Northern Canada, many white eco-activists and Canadians have joined with Indigenous communities to protest a proposed Enbridge oil pipeline. What is overlooked for many, who see their involvement as an important environmental cause or even as anti-capitalist, is that Indigenous communities have life and livelihood at stake. This is not an adventure, another cause, or even just about the environment – in fact, due to their struggle the Canadian government has branded Indigenous groups as eco-terrorists. There is no ‘going home’ when this is done because it is never done and communities will always be seen as a threat. There is no thrill of taking on a mega corporation, just a continued fight for survival – one that white Canadians cannot fully understand. Communities are asked for the ‘Native perspective’ within a conservation framework that is premised on the settler state – ‘Canadian land’, saving the pristine, virgin “home and native land” – while ignoring that their homes are indeed on Native land. Indigenous peoples are further sidelined and displaced in these struggles, despite the centrality of their claims.

This is not to say that all Indigenous peoples are engaged in decolonization or that they are above using the terms and identities of Indigeneity for exploitation. In a recent move to privatize Indigenous land on reservations in Canada, there have been Indigenous ‘sell-outs’ such as Manny Jules and Senator Patrick Brazeau who have championed the move alongside Conservative leaders and right-wing ‘shock jockeys’. As Pam Palmater, a professor of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University – who is on our Editorial Review Board – argued in a powerful response: “Make no mistake, this bill is a modern form of land war that will be waged on our Nations.” History is littered with Indigenous peoples who have been co-opted, sold out for private gain, or wasted their breath appealing to a colonial state to liberate them.

Moving Forward

Colonialism, and subsequently decolonization, has very real and material effects – we cannot forget this. These actions are held up by ways of thinking that disenfranchise, exploit, and marginalize Indigenous peoples around the globe. In the first issue of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, we have scholars/activists who are thinking about what decolonization means in Australia, Puerto Rico, Palestine, Canada, and the United States – and what the connections might be. We hope to have a space where we can explore decolonization as local and connected to specific land bases, but also to explore relationships and connections to further decolonization.

In moving forward, we know the power of Indigenous knowledges. In the Akan culture of western Africa there is the symbol of the sankofa, a bird reaching back to retrieve the past to use in the way forward – this is the sort of progress that is demanded by decolonization. A regenerative resurgence of Indigenous thought, development, sovereignty, life, communities, peoples, and land. Decolonization demands this sort of totality of resistance and revival. One of our Review Board members, Leanne Simpson, summed this up beautifully in saying: Indigenous sovereignty must be asserted with your body, mind, home, community, and every piece of your territory.

There are many views of decolonization, often contrasting and competing, but one thing is common: the belief that through action, change can occur. We’re all implicated in and through colonialism and how we decolonize is connected to how exactly we are implicated. I had originally wanted to write somewhere in this article that “how we choose to decolonize is up to us” and, while I believe that we all have choices as to if we participate or not, decolonization demands recognizing Indigenous land, Indigenous peoples, and Indigenous sovereignty – including sovereignty over the decolonization process. Decolonization is needed and it is up to each of us to take up the recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and what the risks and responsibilities of this recognition mean.

We're fighting for our lives

Indigenous Peoples are putting their bodies on the line and it's our responsibility to make sure you know why. That takes time, expertise and resources - and we're up against a constant tide of misinformation and distorted coverage. By supporting IC you're empowering the kind of journalism we need, at the moment we need it most.

independent uncompromising indigenous
Except where otherwise noted, articles on this website are licensed under a Creative Commons License