What is decolonization? What does the term mean, and what is entailed? In this conversation, we discuss the question of decolonziation with Sakej Ward.
Sakej (James Ward) belongs to the wolf clan. He is Mi’kmaw (Mi’kmaq Nation) from the community of Es-gen-oo-petitj (Burnt Church First Nation, New Brunswick).
Having taught, organized, advised and led various warrior societies from all over Turtle Island down into Guatemala and Borike (Puerto Rico) Sakej has made warrior-hood his way of life.
This conversation is excerpted from a recent episode of The Green Flame, a Deep Green Resistance podcast.
What is Decolonization?
Max Wilbert: Can you help define Decolonization for us and help us understand what this entails? I think a lot of people when they hear the term Decolonization, they think of a process that occurs primarily in the mind and that seems like a part of it to me, but I think there’s more to it. I’m just wondering if you can help us unpack that idea.
Sakej Ward: I don’t know what’s happening in the States, but here in Canada the term Decolonization is being hijacked, so we see institutions like even government institutions or universities in particular that are trying to redefine it and like water it down and use token measure of indigenous inclusion and then call it like a decolonizing initiative and it really isn’t right. So, let’s talk about this, what we really mean.
Now, to explain Decolonization I’ll do it in a simple way, I would just simply say it’s the undoing of the destruction of colonialism and it’s the undoing of colonial influences. So I’m talking about things like the undoing of the destruction of our lands, the destruction of indigenous culture, the destruction of even our governments, destruction of our population, our people, and as you mentioned even our minds, individual minds and our spirits.
Two Sides of Decolonization: Anti-Colonial Action and Cultural Resurgence Action
So I’m talking about reversing all that. So if Colonization was about the destruction of the indigenous way of life in our indigenous world, Decolonization is about ridding ourselves of all those efforts, initiatives, and influences. So the way I usually talk about it, there is basically two efforts or two actions that we could look at these broad spectrums of actions, and the first one is ANTI-COLONIAL ACTIONS and the other one is CULTURAL RESURGENCE ACTIONS.
So the ANTI-COLONIAL ACTIONS are actions we take to disempower or eradicate colonialism. CULTURAL RESURGENCE ACTIONS are the opposite; these are actions we take to rebuild indigenous nations, right? So we do some examples like, for instance, ANTI-COLONIAL ACTIONS, you know, right at the top of my head, here I would say anti-industrial initiatives.
Dismantling the Colonial Economy: Anti-Industrial Actions
So anything that is about destroying our homeland, and so, you know, opposing pipelines like in Wet’suwet’en they’re doing a great job taking on the pipelines, they’re opposing logging, commercial fishing, mining, all these destructive processes to the land and that’s ANTI-COLONIAL EFFORTS, right? Because, like I said, at the core of Colonialism is the idea of extracting the resources of another country or the benefit gain of what used to be referred as Motherland, a Metropole, nowadays is just a particular family or a particular group or particular corporation, right?
And also, anti-colonial actions do also include things like opposing colonial political authority, that’s where we really get down to the things like challenging colonial assertions of sovereignty, so these become actions where you help raise awareness around things like the Doctrine of Discovery and that’s where Europe particularly through the Vatican gave themselves permission to seize all non-Christian lands. So the idea of discovering the land and then claiming it as their own, now belonging to France or Britain or Spain or Portugal, with a colonial construct, right? This was something that the Vatican in their papal bulls Had said go ahead and do this and I’m giving you permission to go out and claim lands for the sake of the Christian Empire, right?
Dismantling Colonial Culture
SW: So we have to challenge those things like the Doctrine of Discovery, because that is at the heart of colonial assertion of sovereignty, when we say sovereignty we’re talking about absolute power, absolutely like governing power over land, and we’re talking about the idea of these Doctrines of Discovery are completely illegitimate, we know it’s based on racism, it’s based on the idea also that Christianity has security over the world or our right to rule the world, so we have to challenge these.
Another anti-colonial action could be like opposing dominant culture ‘cause right now dominant culture is European, Eurocentric-based culture, right? So things like Western Liberalism which focuses on the individual. Indigenous culture was focused on the collective and the next generations, right? It wasn’t about the individual, so it was about thinking about externally, thinking about other people, your community, your nation, and generations yet to come.
Dismantling the Philosophy of Colonization
We also need to get away from things like Capitalism, Christianity, you know oppose all that stuff, as well as something that kinda throws people off is the idea of rights, right-based conflicts. Rights, at least from the dominant culture comes the idea, you could go back to critical theorists like Locke and Hobbes and you see that what they’re saying is rights come from the crown, that means the government, right?
And particularly Hobbes is saying that the crown owns all your rights in order to create a society, and they will tell you what rights you have to be able to function in a society, so you know your rights and your freedoms are all owned by the government and they’ll let you know which ones you can exercise in this model society they create, right? “So indigenous people talk about fighting for rights”, no, we’re really saying that we’re just fighting for the little morsels of political freedoms that the government will give us, right? We’re acknowledging that they have the right to even take them from us to create their society, right?
And, so a lot of times I talk about “no, we have to be more conscious of the idea of INDIGENOUS RESPONSIBILITIES not RIGHTS”, and our responsibilities are the idea of how we relate to the land in a good way, how we relate to the life of the land and our people and our next generation in a good way. Rights is something I can go my entire life without never exercising. The right to, say, “go fish”, and I never have to exercise it at all. A responsibility is a different thing, it’s an obligation, I have a duty to go out and protect that land, I have a duty to go and protect the next seven generations.
So, the dominant culture is really focused on this idea of rights, but really indigenous thinking should be more about responsibilities, and we have to be able to oppose these things. So, on the ANTI-COLONIAL ACTIONS think about imposing industrial initiatives, colonial political authority, dominant culture, we’re gonna oppose all that and that’s anti-colonial actions.
The Necessity of Cultural Resurgence
But, the CULTURAL RESURGENCE ACTION that’s more like indigenous nation building and that’s what we’re talking about healing our homelands, that’s, you know, obviously the ecology, and the environment that’s been utterly decimated under the last five hundred years of Colonialism.
So, we have to talk about how do we rebuild that, how do we rebuild the life in the lands, how do we re-establish a connection and the relationship with our homeland. And it’s understanding that being on indigenous land isn’t just a physical experience, it’s also a cultural-spiritual experience that we have with the lands and the life of those lands. How do we rebuild our ways of governance and how do we empower our traditional government.
Another thing we could look at in terms of CULTURAL RESURGENCE is reclaiming our identity and we spoke a little [about that] earlier because as colonial subjects or colonial citizens we are utterly controlled by their laws, and this was imposed on us, you know, there was never a vote for indigenous people to say “yes, we want to become part of the colonizer”, there was never a self-determining action to say we want to be part of that, it was always imposed.
Here in Canada, the word Aboriginal was used because after the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982, Aboriginal became a legal definition when they talk about indigenous people, and what happens is because it’s a legal definition, they have to define the scope of what it means to be Aboriginal. So, they’re controlling the identity, and basically what it comes down to is an Aboriginal persona can practice non-threatening culture and you could go sing, you could dance, you could tell stories, you can entertain the colonizer as much as you want. You could put on what they always referred to as “our customs” are regalia or cultural clothing.
We could put that on and put on a show for the Queen when she come in to visit Canada and they love that, but the minute we say being indigenous means occupying our land, have access to our land, have a relationship with our land, that becomes threatening to the colonizer, that becomes threatening to the idea of private property.
So the concept, the legal definition of Aboriginal, it’s really about limiting the scope of what it means to be indigenous. So we don’t really have these political rights to access land, and we again we see this happening in Sudan, where the hereditary Chiefs who really are the legitimate leaders of that land are being challenged and faced with conflict of the Colonial States who are telling them by way of the Canadian definition of Aboriginal that they have no real power or no real consent over the land.
So we see in this idea of Indigenous versus Aboriginal being played out in the Wet’suwet’en, and then also in terms of the Cultural Resurgence, we have to talk about rebuilding our culture itself, the language, our history, our ceremonies, our rituals, our customs, and what it amounts to is rebuilding the framework that makes up a worldview, and within our culture, our culture was very spiritual, so we are talking about rebuilding that spiritualism that was part and parcel of our worldview.
Summary: What is Decolonization
And finally, by rebuilding our connection to the land, rebuilding our government and rebuilding our culture hopefully that will remind us about the need to rebuild our sacred responsibility to that land. I hope it fills in all those pieces so we understand how important that really becomes again and that’s what I think of when I think of Decolonization, it’s the Anti-colonial actions as well as these cultural resurgence actions that go on simultaneously.
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Throughout the history of human civilization, imperialism has driven the conquest and colonization of indigenous communities, cultures, and land. The land that they hold sacred is turned into commodities and resources to be “managed” by the settlers. Colonization of the indigenous people continues to this day and will continue until serious political resistance is undertaken with solidarity from non-indigenous people. DGR has developed Indigenous Solidarity Guidelines for any non-indigenous people supporting the decolonization of indigenous people.
Columbus and Other Cannibals provides an indigenous perspective of violence and destruction caused by the dominant culture. For Indigenous Eyes Only helps indigenous communities in the process of decolonization.
“Traditional communities do not often voluntarily give up or sell the resources on which their communities are based until their communities have been destroyed. They also do not willingly allow their landbases to be damaged so that other resources—gold, oil, and so on—can be extracted. It follows that those who want the resources will do what they can to destroy traditional communities.” (Premise 2, Endgame, Derrick Jensen)