Decolonizing Indigenous Communities

By Renee Holt, Last Real Indians

As a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, I read local news and publicity on a recent incident that is a prime example of how successful federal Indian policies have been at colonizing Indigenous communities.

As Indigenous people we have heard the many half-truths from the federal government and know about the areas of need within our respective reservations on a local and regional basis. We know what we need, and where we lack in resources. As issues arise related to the health, education, natural resources management, and community wellness- especially as it relates to federal Indian, and the treaties that affect our reservation communities, as an Indigenous community- we are failing our People.  I won’t go through the historical laundry list of what the government failed to do.  However, I want to send a message to readers- both Indigenous and non-Indigenous- that as a society, we need to stop and listen to what we are doing and consider what a decolonization process would “look” like and evaluate how Indigenous communities have been subjected to colonization.

As a young leader in the field of education advocacy, and after years of hearing my family talk about Tribal conflicts and policies related to treaty rights on hunting and fishing since the first introduction of federal Indian policies and our first encounter with the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery, as a community, we need to wake up and shake the colonized form of governance.

What was mandated and later forced upon us has removed Indigenous people from core cultural value systems as the original People of this land.  The cultural genocide that occurred was rooted on colonial principles and excluded the Indigenous voice.  The examples of current political strife and Tribal conflicts are a result of over one hundred years of federal Indian policy efforts and assimilation.

Recently I posted my sentiment on Facebook about decolonization.  It was insightful, and good to read comments about what decolonization meant to others.  I learned decolonization can come in many shapes and forms.  Even non-Indigenous people can decolonize.  Like any other self-respecting scholar in the academy, I googled the terms.  According to Meriam-Webster online dictionary, decolonize is, “to free from colonial status.”  Wikipedia’s definition of Decolonization refers to, “the undoing of colonialism, the unequal relation of polities whereby one people or nation establishes and maintains dependent Territory (courial governments) over another.  It can be understood politically (attaining independence, autonomous home rule, union with the metropole or another state) or culturally (removal of pernicious colonial effects.)”

I interpreted the definitions as simple, and they provide basic information with an implied knowledge base that decolonization is of the late, or in past tense, and foreign to the United States post WWII, especially as it relates to Indigenous people.  After required course work reading for a class titled Colonization, Decolonization and Globalization, I had an “Aha” moment while preparing for class facilitation using Wasáse written by Taiaike Alfred.  Throughout the reading, I experienced a catapult of Indigenous knowledge resurface from teachings that I had received from elders, including family.

As I reflected on what “Indigenous knowledge” meant to me, as a Navajo/Nez Perce woman, I realized we are caretakers of the land from which we were created, and originate from.  We are and were blessed with generations of ancestral knowledge that is just waiting to be tapped.  The realization opened my mind to the fact that I have the same cultural value systems as my Nez Perce ancestors who died fighting in the Nez Perce War of 1877.

I further reflected on the ways of current governance within tribal communities and how disconnected from indigenous knowledge we have become.  We are removed from what our ancestors taught as core cultural values thus explaining the current state of reservation communities.

During this process, I have learned that I don’t know much at all when it comes to language revitalization or passing down ceremonial knowledge when I am not participating.  I have also learned there was a time when the political strife that exists within our indigenous communities did not occur as frequent or as often as it does today. Without sounding so naïve to political strife, I am aware it did occur.  Historically, we had leaders who stood for what was right and were appointed by elders and councils that balanced a system or way of knowing.

In Navajo, the individual is known as a nat’aani, a respected leader.  In Nez Perce, we called that person a me’yo’xut, someone who lead (male or female) with diplomacy regarding fishing, hunting, gathering, and trading due to their Indigenous knowledge and experience.  As Indigenous people we valued an individual’s knowledge, especially when the individual had a record that our People knew about, for example in war deeds, negotiations, and in how an individual cared for their family and community.  We did not listen to words, we listened to actions.

At present, regardless of which Tribe we come from, we as Indigenous people believe in the path of our ancestors who lead and valued leadership because it meant a way of life or death.  Indigenous children were disciplined early on and taught how to hunt, gather roots and berries, fish, cure and tan hides, and live according to what they were instructed because on any given day an enemy could swoop through and living through harsh conditions necessitated following instructions.

Today, my children watch movies on Netflix and talk about how fun it is to camp out when we prepare to go out gathering.  It takes a couple hours for us to get to our family gathering sites, whereas our ancestors had to travel by horse and later wagons to arrive at their destination.  Our ancestors were fortunate if they did not encounter hungry bears, stealth cougars, or enemy tribes.  The harsh reality of sleeping with a hand cured buffalo hide inside a tipi was the only reality they knew.  We will never know what that was like and can only conceptualize what that is like while out camping.  When I think about my ancestors on both sides of the family tree, I know I am a cushy Fancy Skin and appreciate the modern conveniences of the 20th century.

When it comes to our basic needs in modern times issues such as health, education, housing, unemployment, hunting, gathering, and/or fishing, federal Indian policies have fallen short- but so have we!  When we are negligent to the basic needs of our people, it is un-Indigenous.  To neglect our people, especially our elders and our youth, due to bureaucracy and organizational mismanagement turnover, it IS a glaring example and reality of how federal Indian policies have succeeded at dividing our communities.

Historically, men were present during treaty negotiations however; it was the women the men consulted with at the campfires, and on the home front.  As it was told to me by a relative who is no longer with us, women had a significant responsibility as we gathered for “months at a time” in preparation for winter providing 50% of the staple diet.  We had women who were meyo’xuts by right and were “leaders” of the first root feasts, gathering sites, and were important people when it came to ceremonies for naming and healing.

Men were not the only leaders and were the first to honor our women folk who took care of the villages and family while the men were out hunting and fishing.  In our Nez Perce community, imagine how long it took our men to trek through the mountains into buffalo hunting country or down the Columbia River to Celilo for fish.  The amount of time that took required a significant amount of time away from our villages.

As the original inhabitants of this land, as Nimiipuu, our mother language is from the Sahaptian language group and we co-existed with the Cayuse, Yakama, Wanapum, Coeur D’Alene, Spokane, and had many bands.  According to Tribal oral history and scholarly research, there were several bands of Nez Perce along the interior Columbia Plateau river system and explains why we had more than one chief in the Nez Perce War of 1877.  One chief did not speak for all our people and we lived a cultural way of life the government did not understand.  When I look at a map of ceded Treaty of 1855 Nez Perce territories, Indigenous Ni’mii’puu lands is a vast landscape and region and something to behold.  It is pristine.  I don’t blame non-Nez Perce people for wanting to set up camp in our Indigenous lands.

As I have been taught, Ni’mii’puu were created by Coyote at the Heart of the Monster.  Our creation story as Ni’mii’puu is rooted in Indigenous knowledge and is the reason for our existence.  Our universe is related to the agriculture and the environment which includes but is not limited to the Indigenous foods (roots, berries, hunting, fishing, etc.), but also to the education, both of natural and cultural resources management.  Our sole existence was based on Indigenous knowledge of where we come from, how we interacted, what we ate, where we went to hunt, fish, and gather, and what that consisted of “in usual and accustomed place.”  Remnants of that Indigenous knowledge linger on the brink of extinction because we are consumed with the greed, animosity, and frustrations from unresolved historical grief that has also resulted in multigenerational trauma.

As a community, we have “progressed” just as the colonizer intended, however it has been within the confines and limitations of colonization.  We may have developed programs that seem or appear successful, however they are most often federally-funded grant programs the have created a dependence on state or federal funding agencies.  Within current Indigenous tribal governance, there is a lack of relationship or sense of community to keep a balanced order and to maintain a positive environment.

As Indigenous people, both historically and presently, we believe that all living beings—trees, animals, humans, natural resources are related and impact one another.  We did not separate.  The Indigenous concepts of power and place conflicts with what colonial governance forced upon us.  As a preface to what decolonization means to me, I believe current conflicts are a result of colonial policies.  Decolonization does not have to be an extreme process and decolonization will take time.  It will also require our Indigenous communities to re-evaluate what we have internalized and look at healing multigenerational trauma through ceremony.  I believe this form of decolonization is possible.

Everyday occurrences that fill our world as it pertains to Indigenous knowledge and according to Greg Cajete (Santa Clara Pueblo) are relative and, “individual actions are never singular or linear, but cyclical always moving.”  The notion can be further explained in “Yupiaq Ways of Knowing,” in which a conversation with Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagle (Yupiaq) who was interviewed by Mary M. Clare on Indigenous pedagogies shares, “All learning happens in the heart with deep connection—with dialogue… The open heart does not judge… Dialogue is a meeting between all of each person—ancestry, land, tradition.” The Indigenous knowledge system for our ancestors was resourced, and valued in our communities when selecting leadership, place or location of the next village encampment.  Our livelihood was founded on this truth.

To support what a decolonization process would “look” like for Indigenous communities I revisited a classic.  I read the late Vine Deloria’s (Sicangu Lakota) ideology of Tribal sovereignty and leadership in God Is Red.  We know that the education and leadership of Indigenous communities has been subjected to five centuries of colonialism.  As it relates to an understanding of Indigenous people, our communities have been held to a measure that is based on a colonized world view that does not value the unique needs and cultural differences as it pertains to our worldview.

Resistance to current Tribal authorities that threatens individual and group autonomy, cultural ways of being, and Indigenous knowledge systems have become more prevalent as Indigenous people begin to question authorities due to an awakening of Indigenous rights.  I found another Indigenous scholar relative to Vine Deloria’s decolonization on my educational journey.  Bryan Brayboy (Lumbee) stated it well, “to not resist is to acquiesce to forces of an assimilationist agenda, whether through formalized school, federal policy, or societal norms that have become normalized.”

In closing, I want to leave readers with this quote from Vine Deloria, who stated, “Red Power means we want power over our own lives […] we simply want the power, the political and economic power, to run our own lives in our own way.”  Fundamentally, within Indigenous communities the need to dominate did not exist and the ability to lead and peacefully coexist in harmony was the achievable goal.  As mentioned earlier, the measures by which Indigenous communities are measured have been based on a colonial system that is not reflective of indigenous values.  Decolonization to me does not mean I need to stop watching my Los Angeles Lakers!  The humanity!  Nor does it mean hang up the cell phones that happens when the Zombie Apocalypse occurs, but that’s another story.

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One response to “Decolonizing Indigenous Communities

  1. thanks for opening up dialogue about what it means to decolonize.

    to me the primary means of decolonizing is through resisting assimilation. the colonial powers do not need to occupy our lands if we – ourselves – carry out their interests with every action we take throughout the day.

    decolonization means rejecting the white man’s world and everything it distorts for its own benefit. recreating our own lives to fit within what the whiteman allows cannot be thought of as any sort of resistance, except for our own resistance to difficult – perhaps even life-threatening – struggle. the human race is destined to go extinct unless we stop participating in the whiteman’s war against nature, the earth, and life in general.

    for instance, one cannot earn a college degree by refusing to participate in the whiteman’s society. a college degree is a whiteman’s documentation of approval, and can be nothing more.

    and although i use a cellphone, i completely accept the fact that wireless technology is causing genocide in africa. i use outdated stuff – mainly because it is cheaper than new – and will soon discard them because of their utilization as a means of surveillance and tracking. i don’t see how, when that day comes, those of us willing to discard the whiteman’s ways will be able to find solidarity with people who are willing to let others die by the millions so they can update their facebook status via text message.

    can a whiteman’s professional sports franchise really be more important to you than the freedom and well-being of your community? please reflect more on where your heart is.

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