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Indigenous decolonization describes ongoing theoretical and political processes used to contest and reframe narratives about indigenous community histories and the effects of colonial expansion, genocide, and cultural assimilation, exploitative Western research. Indigenous people engaged in decolonization work adopt a critical stance towards western-centric research practices and discourse and seek to reposition knowledge within indigenous cultural practices.
Some indigenous studies scholars have characterized decolonial work that relies on structures of western political thought as paradoxically furthering cultural dispossession and have advocated for the use of independent intellectual, spiritual, social, and physical reclamation and rejuvenation even if these practices don't translate readily into political recognition. Scholars also characterize Indigenous decolonization as an intersectional struggle that cannot liberate all people until both racism and sexism are addressed.
Beyond the theoretical dimensions of indigenous decolonization work, direct action campaigns, healing journeys, and embodied social struggles for decolonization are frequently associated with ongoing native resistance struggles and disputes over land rights, ecological extraction, political marginalization, and sovereignty. While native resistance struggles have existed for centuries, there was an upsurge of indigenous activism in the 1960s coinciding with national liberation movements in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
Indigenous Postcolonial Theory
Coined by Anna Lees, the methodology of “Indigenous Postcolonial Theory” builds upon and draws clear distinctions from other schools of postcolonial or decolonizing thought. First, the prefix post– doesn’t refer to a period of time, but rather a perpetual ambition of eradicating the political and social power imbalances and effects of colonization that manifest in efforts to culturally assimilate and stereotype Native Americans. Secondly, Indigenous Postcolonial Theory was developed as an alternative method to exercising a broad, blanket critical theory to particularly center indigenous knowledge and values rather than applying a wholesale form of decolonization to Indigenous-specific trauma, strive, love, and joy. Similarly, Marie Battiste posits that Indigenous Postcolonial Theory offers a method of deconstructing the layers and intricacies of colonization, its effect, and its underlying assumptions, in a way that Eurocentric theory is unable to do. She says, “[IPT] is based on our pain and our experiences, and it refuses to allow others to appropriate this pain and these experiences."
Survivance, Sovereignty, and Rhetorical Sovereignty
Survivance has been coined by Gerald Vizenor to characterize the struggle of colonized indigenous communities. Combining the words “survival” and “resistance,” the author evokes the duality of how Native Americans have survived brutal genocides and continue to resist white supremacist laws and culture that are designed to disenfranchise and assimilate. According to Vizenor, “Survivance is an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciation of dominance, tragedy, and victimry." Thus, survivance resists colonial tendencies to resign indigeneity to the past by characterizing an ongoing state of being in response to colonizing efforts.
According to King, Gubele, and Anderson, the study and decolonization of Native American Indigeneity “requires an understanding of the importance of sovereignty to American Indian nations…” In this context, sovereignty includes the localized self-determination of a people, as well as the political authority of nationhood and the recognition of equal-status with similarly sovereign international peers. Not only is this crucial for political purposes, but it's crucial for cultural and spiritual purposes as well: “For Native nations, this kind of a nation is defined by a peoplehood, a concept that has its roots in the preservation and prospering of the community and binds its members together in cultural and often religious terms."
Citing the history of changes in US legislative terminology that sequentially reduced indigenous “nations” to “tribes” and “treaties” to “agreements,” Stephen R. Lyons generated a standard of “rhetorical sovereignty.” Lyons looks at the communicative practices of the colonizer and how indigenous representations and freedoms are constrained as a result. He says, “Rhetorical sovereignty is the inherent right of peoples to determine their own communicative needs and desires in this pursuit, to decide for themselves the goals, modes, styles, and languages of public discourse." In essence, the ambition of Indigenous rhetorical sovereignty would give rhetorical control, and thus representational control, to Indigenous nations.
Narrative, counter-storytelling, and testimonies
According to Thomas King and his book The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative, stories have a substantial impact on the human condition and humans’ constructed reality as a whole. They frame human relationships, perspectives, and moral codes. As King, Gubele, and Anderson put it, “The stories we tell each other tell us who we are, locate us in time and space and history and land, and suggest who gets to speak and how." Similarly, the stories that are widely disseminated or suppressed indicate similar societal expectations and limitations. The Euro-American canon and its continuance of Greco-Roman traditions has deliberately marginalized indigenous stories that manifest in practices of theorizing, speaking, writing, and making. The telling of these stories provides alternatives to and challenge dominant narratives, thus becoming counter-narratives.
Linda Tuhiwai Smith writes that storytelling is a means of connecting past generations to the future ones and the land to the community by “passing down the beliefs and values of a culture in the hope that the new generations will treasure them and pass the story down further." The themes and motifs of these stories pass down shared histories, knowledge, and cultural identity that can range from “humour and gossip and creativity… [to] love, sexual encounters, … [and] war and revenge."
Indigenous testimonies are a means and practice of pushing back against oppression and suppression by providing oral evidence about a painful experience or series of experiences. Linda Tuhiwai Smith writes that testimonies are contingent on a formal structure, a supportive atmosphere and audience, and upholding “a notion that truth is being revealed ‘under oath.’”
It has been speculated that food sovereignty is a means of providing a path towards decolonization. Its definition, in recent years, has been noted to be highly modifiable due to its dependency on the context of the circumstances to which it is applied. In indigenous context, where sovereignty does not serve the right meaning and political intent, the concept of food sovereignty sometimes does not follow the traditional meanings of each individual word.
It has been discussed and theorized in the indigenous context of the concept that food sovereignty is also an effort of reclaiming culture and former relationship to land; it has also been noted that, as a situational concept, food sovereignty in the traditional sense may have underlying traces of capitalist or colonialist interests. Food sovereignty's adaptable definition in the context of indigenous decolonization, in relation to the reclamation of culture, is then highly hypothesized to be a strong route towards decolonization.
Implications of Western knowledge production and epistemologies
As Western scientists and academics have and continue to take advantage of knowledge from and about Indigenous communities (whether in publications or through new pharmaceuticals), those Indigenous communities are excluded from control over the nature and usage of the newly created knowledge. Thus, Indigenous communities are spoken for and become the indigenous “other” as those institutional systems and structures reproduce a knowledge that “becomes a commodity of colonial exploitation." This continues to reinforce the privileging of Western knowledge and epistemologies over non-Western or Indigenous funds of knowledge (or Traditional knowledge) in Western academia. This privilege manifests itself when, according to Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, “Indigenous knowledge systems are too frequently made into objects of study, treated as if they were instances of quaint folk theory held by the members of a primitive culture." Indigenous decolonization seeks a dramatic shift in the subject of academic inquiry. Rather than comparing Indigenous knowledge systems in comparison to “empirical” Western values, Indigenous decolonization aims to reverse this perspective so that Western funds of knowledge are subjected to due examination and study en route to restoring Indigenous knowledge, traditions, and culture.
There are specific advantages to applying Indigenous decolonization to practices and situations involving Indigenous peoples over alternative critical lenses such as critical theory, or more specifically critical race theory. According to Denzin and Lincoln, critical theory’s broad tenets of liberation and sovereignty are far too generalized for this application: “Critical theory must be localized, grounded in the specific meanings, traditions, customs, and community relations that operate in each Indigenous setting." Otherwise, a critical theory that disregards context and embraces ubiquitous characteristics of social movements cannot guide meaningful change when applied to a specific Indigenous context.
Healing journeys and personal decolonization
A contemporary concept in indigenous health and healing studies, decolonization is that of a healing journey that may involve grief, anger, rage, growth and empowerment. It is related to post-traumatic stress syndrome and shares counseling tools that may help with movement on the journey, such as art therapy. There is also an intergenerational component as trauma may have been accumulating in indigenous families over the decades or centuries of intense struggle against assimilation or extinction.
An example of a tool for personal decolonization is the medicine wheel healing concept derived from a religious symbol, used in more ancient times by nations of the North American Plains. This concept helps people whose will has been damaged to balance the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of their self. By creating balance in all these areas of the self a person can find movement on the journey of healing from intergenerational trauma. This tool links to the sacred medicine wheel circles created by the aboriginal inhabitants of Western North America.
Thus indigenous decolonization must incorporate physical, psychological, and emotional and spiritual strategies since the body, the mind and the soul are affected directly by colonialism. True decolonization can be achieved only when all of these components have been addressed or met in some way.
Art as decolonization, Canada 150 and The National Art Gallery of Canada
The National Gallery of Canada updated their Canadian art gallery and titled it "Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968-Present". This gallery was updated on May 3, 2017 in time for Canada 150. The gallery expands on the previous galleries theme by including more pieces from the Indigenous perspective. The National Gallery of Canada's website states that the exhibit includes "more than 150 works in all media, including sculpture, painting, video art, installation, drawing and photography. From the feminist art movement of the 1970s to present day Inuit art". The exhibit is planned to be open until April 30, 2018. This new gallery is the first major transformation the National Gallery has made since 1988.
Director and Chief Executive of the new gallery, Marc Mayer made a statement saying: "It coincides with the 150th anniversary of Confederation, but it really announces our way forward here at the National Gallery, in how we're going to be telling the story of Canadian art. The story of Canadian art will always include indigenous art — they're inseparable in my mind". The collection's advisory committee included two Indigenous advisors. Katerina Atanassova mentions that "It is important, especially for the 150th anniversary, to look back, to really consider where we come from in order to move toward the future, and to really realize who we are as a nation".
The gallery is described as a way forward and of recognition for Canada’s growth. Mayer also described the gallery as bringing "a whole new perspective to our idea of art as a window to history. It brings new histories that have been denied and erased in the official versions, and it brings a respect for history as a living thing".
Indigenous artists have been using art as a form of activism for many years. It is mentioned in Jarrett Martineau and Eric Ritskes' article titled Fugitive indigeneity: Reclaiming the terrain of decolonial struggle through Indigenous art that art forms are never separate from our political forms and "Indigenous art thus occupies a unique space within settler colonialism: both as a site for articulating Indigenous resistance and resurgence, and also as a creative praxis that often reinscribes indigeneity within aesthetic and commodity forms that circulate in the capitalist art market". Art can be used in political struggle to bring attention to important issues and to better convey the experiences of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous artists attempt to work outside of the binary of colonialism in their art. Martineau and Ritskes describe Indigenous art as "the generative expression of creativity, not the violence of colonial domination, and it is in Indigenous art's resistant motion to disavow the repetition of such violence that it recuperates the spirit of ancestral memory and place, and forges new pathways of re-emergence and return". Indigenous art combines past, present and future.
Though this gallery has a section that will remain permanent to the gallery, members that were a part of the creation of the gallery have mentioned the significance of the Gallery opening for Canada 150. From the large Canada 150 sign that adorned The National Gallery of Canada’s front door to the timely implementation of the new Gallery for Canada 150 the institution is immersed in the celebrations. Many Indigenous artists do not agree with the showcasing of art for Canada 150. Many believe that is a celebration of colonialism. The inclusion of Indigenous art in Canada 150 can be confusing because it indirectly promotes that there has been reconciliation when there hasn't been.
There are some Indigenous artists that see Canada 150 as a platform to educate. Artist Kent Monkman’s exhibit Shame and Prejudice provides an uncensored look on topics of Canada’s history such as the residential schools and Indigenous sexuality. Monkman sees Canada 150 as an opportunity to be heard and to bring attention to important issues within Canada’s society.
- Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
- Decolonize This Place
- Decolonization of knowledge
- Decolonization of museums
- Human migration
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