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Decolonizing Futures Book Release: Extended Report

On December 9-10, 2022, contributors to the volume Decolonizing Futures gathered at Uppsala University in the unceded traditional territory of the Sámi People, Sápmi. Contributors presented the content of the volume, shared perspectives unelaborated in the book, and discussed potential future collaborations between contributors.

  • I am a settler American writing this reflection on the book release. As the least experienced researcher to attend this event, and as a settler American, I am attempting to write this reflection in a manner that does not presume to reflect the knowledges or experiences of Indigenous contributors. To achieve this, I am writing this reflection in two parts. In this extended report, I will offer the notes I took on contributors’ presentations. In a separate reflection, I will offer some of the lessons I learned about my mistakes, roles, and responsibilities as a settler who aspires to collaborate in decolonization. I hope that my reflections assist other settlers in realizing our differentiated responsibilities to decolonization, including the responsibility to guide each other.

Summary of the Book Release Events

Indigenous Rights and Institutional Change

  • The book release began with attendees’ presentations on their contributions to the volume. Editor Hiroshi Maruyama opened with a statement of intention, emphasizing that decolonization is only possible if settlers and Indigenous Peoples work collectively to “amplify” Indigenous voices and demands. To do this, we have to redirect the resources we find in academia and other settler institutions towards communities that exist beyond settler systems. I have since learned that, when necessary, we must turn against our universities and publishers’ expectations, and hand our access to academic audiences over to Indigenous researchers.
  • After Hiroshi’s introduction, contributors took turns presenting their work in time-limited lectures. Each lecture was followed by a short question-and-answer session. First, Kamrul Hossain spoke on his chapter about the history of the global indigenous rights movement, and its positionality relative to international law. He described how local Indigenous community efforts and sporadic collaborations intentionally globalized after 1955, in response to the UN’s attempt to bar disjointed entities - that is, Indigenous Peoples who did not express their sovereignty in the form of a single polity - from participation. Hossain tracks the development of international legal responses to Indigenous demands, from the UN’s founding fallacy that a people needed to be organized into a nation-state in order to self-govern, and that Indigenous Peoples were therefore not self-governing; to the ratification of the right to self-determination; to ongoing conversations about how self-determination can actually be enacted for Indigenous Peoples as communities that exist beyond nationalist conceptions of self-governance. Hossain concluded with stressing the need for nation-states to not only recognize, but implement Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, as well as listen to and facilitate Indigenous Peoples’ rights to determine how their communities live, are protected, are consulted with by national and international legislatures, are treated by corporations, and are existing within their traditional territories.
  • Quintin Gumucio Castellon considered what Indigenous Peoples’  self-governance might look like within the nation of Chile. He admitted that his chapter’s exploration of alternative political possibilities is not so much an exploration of achievable steps towards Indigenous self-governance, as it is a kind of “political fiction”, a commentary on the Chilean state and its colonizing methods. He argued that the Chilean government has such a centralizing impetus that local peoples cannot make any decisions about governance that the center will recognize and facilitate. As such, a preliminary move towards decolonization might look like localities expanding autonomous governance. He likens this imagined solution to a federation of states. Gumucio Castellon concluded with posing the question of how to convince settler agents of colonial governance that indigenous sovereignty is legitimate.
  • Elizabeth Sumida Huaman crystalized this question, and pointed out its inherent illogic, in a question to both authors. The authors explored avenues for decolonization through the state and the UN, both institutions rooted in colonialism. Sumida Huaman recognized the problem of asking colonial institutions to validate Indigenous rights. Accordingly, she asked who is doing this work of decolonization, and for whom this work was being done, in each chapter’s context. She made clear that indigenous sovereignty and rights are not something that can be given by the UN or colonial governments; to assume that a colonial system can control indigenous rights is to legitimize the colonial system’s authority over bodies and territory and thus undermine decolonization. Hossain responded by specifying that the UN cannot bestow rights to Indigenous Peoples, but instead can recognize Indigenous Peoples’ inherent rights. Hossain argued that colonial governments are more likely to recognize Indigenous rights if they are first legitimized by international law, and that this legitimization can only happen if Indigenous Peoples have ever-increasing access to decision-making power in institutions like the UN. Whether decolonization can truly be achieved if Indigenous Peoples collaborate with colonial institutions remains an open question.
  • In her own presentation, June Lorenzo added another layer of critique to this debate. She pointed out that many people assume rights are given to people by states, but Indigenous Peoples want to make clear that they have rights that are inherently theirs - not ones given or begged for from the state. This is Indigenous sovereignty itself, the right to self-determine that has never been taken away from Indigenous Peoples and cannot be given to them by any settler colonial legislature or government.

Indigenous Artists

  • The next round of contributors asked to present were three Indigenous artists: Julie Edel Hardenberg, Lena Stenberg, and Antonie Frank Grahamsdaughter. Hardenberg is a visual artist in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Greenland, who examines the decolonial process in Greenland. She takes her analysis to the personal level, working to point out what holds us back from building awareness and action within settler colonial societies. She remarked that, when we are born and raised in a society built with colonial systems, we are not always aware of our own contributions to colonialism. So, her projects aim to expose the invisible processes of ongoing colonialism that people carry out, particularly in Greenland. She often uses national flags as their subject. National flags are laden with symbolism; one of the things they symbolize is the collective people whom they represent. While speaking about her work, Hardenberg brought attention to the ways in which her work is received by antagonistic audiences. She shared that she and her colleagues in Ainu communities have agreed not to share certain pieces of work - particularly those that use the Japanese flag as an object for political commentary - because they feel anxious that these pieces might attract severe right-wing backlash. Despite these kinds of challenges, Hardenberg and her colleagues continue to make art unapologetically, in acts of Indigenous reclamation, self-representation, and active engagement with decolonization.
  • After Hardenberg, Sámi artist Lena Stenberg was scheduled to present. After briefly  mentioning that she works with and is a member of Sámi communities, she asked that we look at her work in the book and ask her questions later, thus ending her presentation.
  • The last artist to present was Antonie Frank Grahamsdaughter. Grahamsdaughter is a Canadian Swedish-Ojibwe artist living most of her life in Sweden. She framed her presentation within her work to decolonize her family history, She began this work with other family members in 2011. Throughout her life, including when she first proposed the project, members of her family, especially her uncle, insisted on continuing to hide evidence of her family’s Indigenous heritage. However, after some conversations, her uncle started to talk and express his pride to be a native person. She and her family cultivated a loving space wherein her uncle felt comfortable to show the family a buffalo horn that was worn during powwow dances. Much like her uncle, Grahamsdaughter’s described how her father refused to say he was “Indigenous”, even though her family is mixed Ojibwe. She rooted this hesitancy in generational pain inherited from her grandmother, who was stolen from a residential school by a white Irish woman who cut her hair and tried to assimilate her. Grahamsdaughter’s grandmother was made to give birth to her father, and the same Irish woman that stole her grandmother stole her father and raised him as white. She shared that her uncle was also raised as assimilated to whiteness in a residential school. Grahamsdaughter explained that their assimilation from childhood, and the trauma of being separated from their mother, made her father and uncle hate to be native, made them feel very angry, and made them feel that they did not have an understanding of what “family” is. To grow through this pain, Grahamsdaughter’s father began to reclaim Ojibwe ways of life. After he died, Grahamsdaughter and her brother came together to revive the family story and continue an intergenerational decolonization and reclaiming of family history.
  • After concluding their presentations, the artists were asked if they primarily intend to do activism and or make art when exercising creative expression. For Lena, her piece Borders started with her research into her family’s forced relocation and confinement to Sweden and claiming of Swedish nationality. She found lots of old photos of her grandmother’s father and his father, and sorting through these photos to create new creative expressions is a means to understand her ancestors. For Julie, she never knows when she’s doing art or activism because, when you’re raised in a society laden with colonialism, individuals need to speak up and not be silenced. So, she simply expresses her voice - “all the things that are not allowed to be said” - through a visual medium, but the lines between activism and art are blurred. For Antonie, she creates artistic works and writings for her family - not making any compromises for anyone else, to cater to anyone else’s understanding or misunderstanding of her work.

Indigenous Activism and Education

  • Moving towards explicitly activist contributors, the next series of presentations were given by Marie Persson Njajta, Satu Gröndahl, and Elizabeth Sumida Huaman.
  • Marie Persson Njajta is a Sámi “human rights defender with special focus on Indigenous Peoples’ and children’s rights, a member of The Sámi Parliament, and the founder of the organization ‘Stop Rönnbäck Nickel Mining Project in Ume River’” (https://cemipos.org/keynote-speakers-njajta/). Persson Njajta explained that her piece discusses the situation that Sámi people face, and how they have struggled against the invisible injustices imposed on their communities. This resistance is an ongoing process. Sámi are still very much affected by Scandinavian countries’ colonial policies. Persson Njajta offered her membership in the Sámi Parliament as one form of resistance against not only these policies, but also the settler colonial frameworks that grant them legitimacy. Her chapter helps readers visualize the resistance of local communities against extractivism and green colonialism in Sapmi land, as well as other colonial policies that impact their local areas so deeply. She continued on to connect two other initiatives, a Sámi community center and the Sámi Parliament’s Truth Commission, to the repertoire of Sámi activism going on in Southern Sápmi. When speaking about the community center, she emphasized that it is a space for Sámi People to exchange knowledge in creative and loving ways, as a means to continue resistance. For Indigenous Peoples who are oppressed by virtue of their identities, living on traditional territories and living as Sámi is an act of constant resistance itself. This resistance via existence is taxing, and Persson Njajta reasoned that reclaiming Sámi art, language, culture and knowledge can help restore Sámi Peoples’ strength, providing love and validation for the Sámi identity at this community center. Before her presentation ended, Sumida Huaman added that the Truth Commission is a step towards justice, but in a truly decolonizing world, settler colonists would approach Indigenous Peoples and ask them to serve justice to us.
  • Shortly after, Eva Forsgren shared information about Sápmi Amnesty as it relates to Persson Njatja’s work. Forsgren is the Chair of the Uppsala Sámi Association. In the Association, Sámi and non-Sámi try to strengthen Sámi rights by publishing articles, organizing meetings with politicians, and centering Sámi rightholders in decision-making. She illustrated the four principles which guide the Association’s work: protecting territory; acting against racism, hatred and threats towards Sámi people; repatriating human remains and sacred objects; and raising awareness of Sweden’s history of abusing, colonizing and interacting with Sámi people.
  • Satu Gröndahl provided an example of Indigenous creativity as resistance in her chapter presentation. She outlined her chapter as a comparative analysis of two books in which young women are trying to reconnect with their family histories. She focused on how the author-protagonists of these books navigate between many “double identities” - Sámi or Swedish, or between Sámi and Swedish. What Satu found interesting was these authors’ descriptions of feeling not alive. She wanted to know what this feeling meant and why two separate Sámi-Swedish authors articulated it. One author says that it is a feeling of being empty all the time, afraid of losing something even though there was nothing to lose. It is the feeling of not being worth anything, and the fear of losing worth that was not even possessed in the first place. The second author writes about a person living in Stockholm searching for information about her family’s origins. The person says she realized she was dead when, during her quest, her family was unwilling to remember their pasts because they were “dead even to themselves”. Satu interpreted these authors’ feelings of being dead. She expressed that  it is not a feeling of being in between identities, but a feeling of being lost in or dead to history - unrecognized by colonizers’ histories, and traumatically forgotten in family historical memories. Gröndahl recognized that the feeling of being dead cannot be overcome, but a feeling of being substantial or solid could be achieved through anticolonial reclamation of one’s family history and past.
  • Elizabeth Sumida Huaman illustrated decolonizing strategies for educating Indigenous students about their families’ histories. First in Wanka Quechua and then in English, she introduced herself. In English, she introduced the family members whom she descended from, and named herself as a Wanka Quechua Person. She summarized that her work focuses on the way we form relationships with land, and how those relationships shape the ways we learn and are methods of learning themselves. In particular, she explained that she is interested in ways Indigenous communities take control of their own systems of learning and schooling to restore, repair, and validate Indigenous life. She described her formation of non-family bonds with Indigenous Peoples in Canada, (namely Oneida and Ojibwe Peoples), as a privilege. As for her positionality, Sumida Huaman expressed interest in what the child, grandmother, teacher and artist has to say, explicitly avoiding governmental organizations that have tried to steal Indigenous birthrights to the education these figures offer.  She clarified that education is a means to pass on knowledge that allows people to form relationships to territory in distinctly Indigenous ways, in ways that exist beyond settler colonialism rather than within it. Before concluding, Sumida Huaman communicated her concern about what will happen to Indigenous education as key features of the land are significantly changed or disappeared due to climate change perpetuated by colonial systems of living.

Histories of Oppression and Resistance

  • Hiroshi Maruyama, Carles Jornet Aguareles, and June Lorenzo taught us about histories of Indigenous resistance to oppression.
  • Writing with Leni Charbonneau, Maruyama introduced the longstanding Japanese practice of stealing Ainu remains for eugenicist study, and discusses ongoing Ainu strategies for demanding their repatriation. In order to assist the repatriation project, Charbonneau and Maruyama looked to other Indigenous Peoples’ successful repatriations of human remains. They compared these successes to the ongoing struggle among Ainu, in order to pressure the state and its universities, museums, and other institutions into returning the stolen remains as part of its alleged, (yet still unfulfilled), commitment to Ainu empowerment and decolonization.
  • Carles Jornet Aguareles spoke on his experience first as a student, and then as an adopted member of a Rapa Nui community. He brought our attention to the direct action that Rapa Nui Peoples have taken to exercise their sovereignty over land in a manner that explicitly challenges settler colonial territory claims. Instead of continuing with unproductive legal negotiations, the Rapa Nui Parliament effected an occupation of their territory. They occupied the Rapa Nui National Park, which is about 44% of the total island, in order to demand full management of the heritage site. Jornet Aguareles described how the Parliament plans to care for the territory as management rights are given up by the Chilean state. The Parliament has decided that an organization will be created to manage the heritage site. Between the occupation and planning for Indigenous-led land management systems, Jornet Aguareles emphasized that the Parliament created a new political possibility to realize their sovereignty over traditional territory.
  • June Lorenzo pulled the discussion from sovereignty over Indigenous lands to sovereignty over Indigenous knowledges more broadly. Along with other Indigenous Peoples, Lorenzo has been negotiating to protect indigenous knowledge and indigenous expression within global law, arguing that these heritages are intellectual property. Just prior to the Book Release, Lorenzo was at the negotiating table in Geneva, Switzerland. To illustrate why intellectual property is compatible with Indigenous knowledges, Lorenzo shared that she comes from Pueblo peoples who know that there are certain things they will never see or know. In fact, she was taught to show respect for people, their culture, and their personal issues by respecting their right to privacy. By sharing her community’s perspective, Lorenzo demonstrated that the “public domain” is a Western concept reflecting settler colonists’ objectifying and dehumanizing impulses. Settler colonial thinking dictates that people have a right to whatever knowledge we want. Lorenzo made clear that we do not have this right, and we should not be seeking information that is not meant for us. We should not be demanding that Indigenous Peoples sate our curiosities, or educate us on how to make up for our colonial knowledge extraction. Instead, Lorenzo refocused on the academic work of Indigenous Peoples. She described how these academics codify Indigenous knowledges, and force audiences to accept Indigenous cosmologies as legitimate frameworks for analysis. That is an exercise of Indigenous sovereignty, insofar as it is an exercise of recognizing and working within one’s own framework of existence without asking for permission from the settler colonial institutions it challenges or denies.
  • Prior to the intellectual property initiative, Lorenzo met with other Indigenous Peoples on the 10th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to reevaluate the Declaration and look for things to improve. Through the lens of the UN Declaration, she was particularly committed to finding tools for Indigenous Peoples to resist extraction if they do not want it. Accordingly, much of her work throughout her 30-year legal career has included investigations into uranium mining, milling and waste management in New Mexico. With respect to the current intellectual property initiative, Lorenzo and Sumida Huaman pushed back against the academic belief that peoples - especially Indigenous Peoples - cannot be “objective” or authoritative when talking in the first-person about their own experiences. Her chapter, like all of her work, aims to demonstrate not only the legitimacy of personal accounts as academic sources, but the need for them. The logic of her argument was made clear during her presentation: Indigenous voices will continue to be excluded unless we give up space for Indigenous Peoples to speak for themselves as scholars and researchers.

Resistance and Resilience through Art

  • To close out Day 1 of the conference, Katarzyna Pastuszak, Stefania Castelblanco Pérez, and Arnaq Grove spoke on their experiences resisting colonialism through performance, material production, and language education.
  • Katarzyna Pastuszak, Director of theater collective Amareya and Friends, presented the Amareya project with Louise Fontain Najavaraq, an Indigenous woman from Greenland who shares her life story through art. Pastuszak made an evocative metaphor of working together for decolonization through sharing each other’s life stories as connecting threads and finding intersections to build a multivocal story.
  • Stefania Castelblanco Pérez introduced herself as a Colombian handbag artisan based in Bogotá and Stockholm, whose chapter is grounded in eleven interviews with Iku, Nasa, and Sámi artisan-experts. In this chapter, Castelblanco Pérez demonstrates how craft objects carry meanings of nonviolent resistance for the Indigenous artisans she interviewed. She pinpointed social, cultural, and political identity formation as the specific outcomes of Indigenous artisanship, and likened this form of nonviolent resistance to settler colonial elimination to satyagraha, the principle of nonviolent and unyielding resistance to evil promoted by Mahatma Gandhi. Castelblanco Peréz argued that artisanship - particularly weaving patterns passed down through generations - can help Indigenous communities build economic stability; revitalize cultures, identities and histories violently eviscerated by settler colonizers; and pass on knowledges in mediums beyond written historical language often established by Western colonizers. Her last point aligned closely with Sumida Huaman’s commitment to work outside of colonial systems to realize Indigenous sovereignty and survival.
  • The last speaker, Arnaq Grove, spoke on another means by which Indigenous Peoples resist colonization: language education. An educator herself, Grove explained how she teaches the Greenlandic language not only as a language credit, but as a medium for learning all knowledge - the language in which education is conducted, just as it was prior to contact. Through her work, she carries on her own experience, her own truth, and her knowledge that Greenlandic is a language abundant with meaning and equipped to communicate unique knowledges. She made clear that the unique knowledges passed on through Greenlandic allow its speakers to renew Greenlandic culture, and to understand their existence through the lens of a culture that is beyond settler colonialism. This is decolonizing resistance that helps learners reclaim power over themselves, and against settler colonial ways of knowing. She remarked that Greenlandic language and culture proficiency better empowers Greenlandic peoples to know who they are and what they value, and to demand the political systems and forms of coexistence with colonizers work for them. However, she lamented that it is still hard to find Greenlandic teachers. Before ending Day 1, Julie Edel Hardernberg, who is also Greenlandic, summarized that Indigenous languages are a geography in which Indigenous Peoples can continue to exist once their physical territories have been stolen. Language is a means to survive and thrive and create and take power beyond settler colonialism, a means to determine one’s own belonging to the place where one’s language was originally developed; the place that is perfectly described and understood through one’s language because that language was developed in conversation with the territory. Language is a means to lay claim to one’s land, to exist in conversation with it, to intimately know it, and to refuse settler colonial claims to it.