Skip to main content

Ending the Mental Attitudes of Colonization

Damian Webster and Emmy Scott ask important questions in their recent article, "A Defense of Traditionalism": "What is a successful Native person?" "Whose standard are we attempting to meet?" "Do we expect our children to know our creation stories, speeches, or ceremonial songs in the same manner we expect them to know their times tables, U.S. history dates, or the U.S. Constitution?"

They raise these questions in the context of the Navajo language requirement that precluded Chris Deschene from running for the office of Navajo Nation President. Webster and Scott don't criticize Deschene for speaking more English than Navajo, nor do they make an issue of the fact that another candidate for the presidency, Joe Shirley, Jr., professes a mixture of Christianity and Navajo beliefs.

Their defense of traditional values focuses a philosophical call to action, bigger and broader than a specific political campaign. As they point out, defense of traditional values runs head on into mass culture, commercialism, and pressures toward uniformity. The capitalist system of economics makes everything—lands and people—into commodities to buy and sell.

The phrase "free market" hides the fact that we cannot participate in the market economy unless we have money; and the only way to get money (if you aren't born into it) involves finding something to sell. We learn to sell ourselves. We learn to fit into the "needs of the market."

Identity becomes a brand, rather than a sign of internal, individual meaning. The ads say, "be you," but they are designed to sell a product. The market economy speaks of "individualism," but it produces assimilation.

As Webster and Scott say, "Native men and women often cut their hair stating reasons of opportunities for better jobs. We dress up in business suits without question because we want to appear 'presentable' in our careers. But whose standard are we attempting to meet, and who determines what is deemed presentable?"

They add, "We are conforming to a system which was designed to exclude us entirely. Despite understanding this, we continue to allow others to choose the standards for us. We need to openly challenge these imposed standards."

The market economy does exclude ways of life that impede the flow of capital. When a People defend their lands against capitalist "resource" extraction, the market sees an enemy. The market system knows no holy ground.

Likewise, the market has no room for human relations based on sacredness. Traditional societies get in the way of the market, because they do not value money above all else. The market can deal with traditional "crafts" and can turn a ceremony into a tourist attraction. But when a People insist on maintaining traditional relations, which often—maybe always—involve sharing the necessities of life, the market sees another enemy.

Colonialism aims at imposing the market system on traditional communities, destroying traditional sharing economies and forcing people to make a living by selling their labor. A central principle of the allotment process, which was encouraged and supported by the Christian missions—was to "civilize" Indians by breaking their social relations of sharing and coercing them into individual "self-reliance." The boarding school program aimed explicitly at that goal.

Though the boarding school regime no longer dominates Native education, the "civilizing" mission continues, in other guises. As Webster and Scott put it, "We continue to push Western education upon our children year after year, just as it was pushed upon us, and those before. We tell them education is the future. You must be educated. It has been said that we must know our enemy if we are to defeat them, to beat them at their own game. We can appreciate that sentiment, but what about the other side? We might know our enemy now, but how well do we know ourselves?"

Webster and Scott conclude, "It would be a powerful statement for our future generations if we dedicated as much effort to success in our own tribal institutions as we dedicate to the Western one."

Their call echoes the words of Patrice Lumumba, a great anti-colonial leader of the 20th century, who led the Congolese independence movement against Belgium and was elected Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo. Lumumba's government survived only twelve weeks, when a rival who conspired with the Belgians to take control of the mineral mines ousted him from power. The US CIA and Britain's MI6 were both implicated in Lumumba's assassination, as part of Cold War maneuvering in the former European colonies.

One of the most famous statements Lumumba ever made, as he spoke to the opening session of the Pan-African Congress in August 1960, explained that "no matter what standards of living the colonized enjoy," the anti-colonial struggle was "to restore the dignity of…people." He added, "Our aim is to restore Africa's cultural, philosophical, ethical, and social values, and to safeguard our resources."

Webster and Scott speak in a similar powerful voice, calling for Native peoples "to maintain who we are and remain distinct in our tribal nations."

Lumumba described the effort to undo colonialism—what Webster and Scott refer to as "dedication to success in our own tribal institutions"—saying, "We…have to review everything we had done, and think everything through again by ourselves…. We knew that we would have to…revise the methods that had been forced upon us, and above all to rediscover our most intimate selves and rid ourselves of mental attitudes and complexes and habits that colonization had trapped us in for centuries."

May it be so.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.