Decolonizing decolonization

Indian Country Today

There is much current discussion of decolonization among contemporary indigenous scholars and tribal members.

Current post-colonial theory suggests methods of renouncing external coercive systems of control, and encourages individuals to seek greater liberation from colonial language and history.

By providing critiques of colonial forms of domination, scholars seek to gain individual freedom from the shackles of colonial language and the internalization of colonial values and world views. Furthermore, the critiques are aimed at convincing others of the unfairness (if not the immorality) of colonial arrangements. In America, Indian country decolonization critiques are aimed at past and present policies of the BIA, and the inherently assimilationist patterns of U.S. Indian policy. The loss of land, culture and tribal government powers are attributed to the processes of colonization. Indians are seen as the victims of history, and can only find salvation in the critique of colonial actions and the recovery of tribal culture.

If all change from traditional tribal society is considered a form of colonization, then no constructive change is possible or desirable.

While the colonial patterns of indigenous history has led to much suppression, tragedy, loss of life, and the weakening of political and economic autonomy, the focus of decolonization positions are on the actions of the colonizers. Rather than indigenous studies, the decolonization arguments are a form of colonization studies.

In the decolonization approach, Indians are seen as marginalized victims of greed, power and cultural hegemony imposed by unsympathetic and non-indigenous nation states, cultures and market economies. Certainly colonization forms the context of the history of indigenous peoples over the past 500 years. Nevertheless, the decolonization approach can only be a tool of analysis of the conditions of colonization. The problem with using such an approach is that it does not give central place to indigenous peoples or their abilities to make choices, form resistance, achieve a measure of success, and does not account for the continuity of indigenous communities, view points, and social and political action despite 500 years of colonial relations.

Decolonization theories derive from Western materialist theories of domination, and do not provide much direct insight of analysis of tribal communities or persons other than to account for their economic, political and cultural marginalization. A theory of indigenous social actions in the world needs to understand indigenous peoples as active players in world history and in the contemporary world.

In the colonization and decolonization world views, there is little ability to explain how indigenous peoples over the past 40 years formed the international indigenous peoples movement, and gained the support of the United Nations General Assembly and passage of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Tribal gaming, won in hard-fought legal battles ending in congressional passage of the Indian Gaming Regulation Act, which is a pathway to stronger tribal governments in many communities, cannot be explained by the colonization or decolonization perspectives.

The loss of land, culture
and tribal government powers are attributed to the processes of colonization.

In the decolonization approaches there is no clear understanding of or attention to indigenous community, culture, social action in history, and perhaps more importantly, the possibilities of social, cultural and political change in indigenous communities. Like all human communities, indigenous communities change and adapt to changing political and economic conditions. Indigenous communities often change in patterns that emphasize the continuity of core cultural values and institutions, and try to change in ways that maintain cultural continuity and identity. Decolonizing approaches cannot explain why indigenous people choose to wear non-traditional clothes, drive cars, send their kids to schools, and would even want to engage in the global market. If all change from traditional tribal society is considered a form of colonization, then no constructive change is possible or desirable.

Indian studies and Indian perspectives need to put indigenous communities at the core of their analysis and their scholarship, and policy analysis should support the patterns of change that tribal communities are working toward, not only to preserve core values and institutions, but also to make changes that will enhance political, cultural, community, and economic choices and autonomy that will enable greater viability in the contemporary world.

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