Activism 101: What is Decolonization?

Decolonize is a word that has been coming up a lot in activism discourse lately. But what is decolonization?

A short definition would be that “decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life”. Oftentimes we hear things about “decolonize our schools” and “decolonize our bookshelves”. While decolonization is important as a theoretical framework, phrases like this water down the original meaning and make decolonization a metaphor.

How we use the term today is mostly about learning how colonialism and colonial mentalities infiltrate all institutions and systems of government in this society. We need to know more than that.

Settler colonialism 

Settler colonialism is an ongoing system of power that perpetuates the genocide and repression of indigenous peoples and cultures and includes interlocking forms of oppression, including racism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism. Colonization is a group of people taking over the land and imposing their own culture on Indigenous people. Decolonization is the antithesis of settler colonialism. 

When we think about it, this land was stolen in an effort to create a state built on the principles. This land was never discovered if people were already living here (Thanks, Columbus).

Indigenous Sovereignty

Indigenous sovereignty is “the right and ability of Indigenous people to practice self-determination over their land, cultures, and political and economic systems.” Decolonization promotes and centers Indigenous sovereignty.

While we can work to “decolonize our minds”, the most important thing to remember is that this concept is foremost about promoting Indigenous sovereignty, not only about decentering white supremacy.

What can we do?

For someone who comes from ancestors (Africans) who were stolen from their land and transplanted onto this one, I can only marginally understand the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty. What I can do is work on my own relationship with the land and unlearn settler colonial concepts we have been taught to accept as truth.

But that’s only the beginning.

This resource guide from Sogorea Te’ Land Trust shares a variety of questions and ideas for how you can think about the history and reality of the land we are on. You can also check out one of our featured organizations, LANDBACK, for more information on the Land Back movement.

For more reflection, you can also check out this article.

There are also land acknowledgements, which are “well-intended attempts by non-indigenous organizations to address a broken collective relationship with history, the erasure of genocide and colonization, and alienation from the land upon which human life depends.” Good land acknowledgements not only recognize tribal lands, but they also acknowledge the land had been stolen and exploited by settler colonialism.

But what books can I read??

Unsettled Expectations: Uncertainty, Land and Settler Decolonization by Eva Mackey

Indigenous Nationhood: Empowering Grassroots Citizens by Pamela Palmater

There There by Tommy Orange

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